In Haines, a race to harvest fruit before bears do

Black Bear (Image from ADF&G)

Haines bear encounters have increased over the last year, often from bears going after residential food sources, such as chicken coops and fruit trees. Now a group of local nonprofits is offering to help residents pick their fruit for free.

Shannon Donahue is the executive director of the Great Bear Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to conserving bears and their habitat. She says when bears can easily access food on someone’s property, they can start to rely on it.

“When we do allow bears to get into our cherry trees or our carrots or something like that, that’s part of an ongoing process of food conditioning that is rewarding bears for seeking food near peoples’ houses,” Donahue said.

Domestic fruit trees, and particularly apple trees, can be a powerful bear attractant.

Donahue says it is difficult to predict which food sources the bears will go after at a given time of year, but generally they are very good at detecting when fruits contain the most sugars.

“Typically they’re going to go after the fruit as it’s ripening and developing those sugars,” Donahue says. “It’s important to get the fruit as soon as we can. If possible, to even harvest that fruit before it gets fully ripe.”

Recently Donahue has been working with local nonprofits on an initiative to remove fruit from trees and yards before bears can get to it. Haines Library education coordinator Tracy Wirak is organizing a group of volunteers to harvest fruit for residents for free. All of the usable fruit will be given back to the homeowner, while anything rotten will be sent to Haines Compost and the Starvin’ Marvin’ community garden.

Donahue says the Great Bear Foundation had success with a similar program that it launched 20 years ago in Missoula, Montana. The program has grown so much that the foundation ends up with a lot of surplus fruit.

“Some of that goes to food banks and to the homeless shelter,” Donahue says. “A few years ago a cidery opened up in Missoula, and they reached out to partner with us. They create a specific batch of cider called the Great Bear Community Cider out of it.”

Donahue says the benefits are twofold. Removing the fruit protects humans and bears, but it also makes use of a food source that might have gone to waste.

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