Story last updated at 2:23 p.m. Thursday, April 25, 2002

Wake-up time for bears keeps people alert
By Marcus K. Garner
Morris News Service-Alaska

With springtime breakup, comes another season residents on the Kenai Peninsula should be aware of. Wake up.

This is the time when bears are typically aroused from their winter slumber. And after months of sleeping off stored up nourishment, the bruins are looking to feed themselves.

Being knowledgeable about their presence and how to coexist with them will go a long way to help avoid any negative interactions, said Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife technician Larry Lewis.

"As a real good rule of thumb, always assume you're in bear country," Lewis said.

He said bear reports are already coming in.

"We've already had problems up at Cooper Landing in the waste transfer site," Lewis said. "And I'm hearing second-hand stories already. It's time."

A report from Fish and Game area biologist Ted Spraker revealed evidence at a recent Kenai Mountain valley avalanche, as paw prints were found where a bear was trying to get to the meat of one of the dozen Killey River caribou killed there.

"As long as food is around, these big males will be out," Lewis said. "So people should start locking up their dog food and take time to take down their bird feeders."

Last year, he said Fish and Game handled 117 reports of bears between April and October.

"So we had eight months of brown bears," Lewis said. And last summer, Seldovia had reports of bears causing a ruckus around residential areas. Soldotna resident John McMichaels said he even found a sow trying to get underneath his house.

"She was digging, trying to find a place to hibernate," he said. "She couldn't get in, though."

Seldovia policeman John Holley said there were three males between a year and 18 months old nosing around. He said they began showing up in April and became more prevalent by July. And one male, he said, was shot by a resident in defense of life and property.

"They were going in trash cans or going on people's porches and eating fruit," Holley said. "From talking to Chief (Andy) Anderson, it was probably biggest problem we've seen."

Lewis said bear nuisance reports come in when bears become habituated, or accustomed to humans. Leaving out garbage, fruit and pet food attracts these hungry mammals into residential areas. And if they get used to eating this type of food, Lewis said bears could become a problem for residents.

"A brown bear's natural inclination is not to be around us," he said. "If they're human habituated, they will tolerate humans, and not see us as a threat. Once these bears have been site-habituated, they are going to come back to that site."

He said the onus falls upon humans to prevent leaving easy draws into neighborhoods.

"We all have a responsibility with these bears," Lewis said. "And that responsibility entails keeping food away. Any type of attractant for these bears is bad."

And the Board of Game, he said, is taking steps to make that responsibility more serious for Alaskans. It is currently unlawful to deliberately feed wild game, such as moose, wolverines, caribou or bears without permission from Fish and Game.

Effective July 1, negligence with regard to feeding bears will become a punishable offense. People who don't take care to prevent bears from coming into neighborhoods could get a $50 fine, Lewis said.

"If I go to someone's home and see a problem (attractant), and it's causing a problem for the neighborhood, if they're not willing to work with us, it's going to cost them some money," he said. "We're not citation-happy. We like to work with people. We're not the garbage control, but if we can't get people to work with us to fix the problem, this is one remedy we have."

He said Fish and Game officers will respond to bear reports and often try to solve the problem, first over the phone, by talking the caller through the problem, then by visiting the site if it is more serious. But nothing can be done if the bear isn't reported.

"We really encourage people to call us if they have an encounter," Lewis said. "If we can talk to them over the phone and solve the problem, we encourage them to take garbage and lock it up in the house. If I can't solve the problem, I'll come out to home an make an on-site assessment. When it becomes a public safety issue, we escalate our response."

He said incidents are recorded and bears are marked and tracked after they've been removed from a community.

"If we catch a bear, we'll take it and move it out to an outlying area, tag it, and track," Lewis said. "It's import information.

"A lot of these bears we never see again," he continued. "Those that don't learn, or learn bad habits, wind up being shot and killed." Lewis said a little understanding should keep both bears and people happy and safe.

"We don't need to live in fear," he said. "We just need to use common sense and be better aware or more bear aware."

<> Marcus Garner is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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