Juneau’s unsecured garbage and ‘bumper crop of yearling bears’ are a deadly combination

A man  with a broom stands outside his shed , whose entrance is torn apart with debris lying all around.
Renato Olangco pauses from cleaning up a mess to contemplate what a bear did to the locked shed where he stored his garbage can. (Matt Miller/KTOO)

This summer is shaping up to be one of the worst ever in recent memory for bears in Juneau. Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials say a bunch of young bears and a dwindling natural food supply are forcing the bruins to search human garbage for food before they hibernate for the winter.

It’s trash day in Renato Olangco’s neighborhood. He’s out this morning cleaning up the mess and looking over the damage to what used to be a locked tool shed in his driveway. A bear clawed open the shed’s plastic doors overnight, got into the smelly garbage stored inside and scattered it all over the place.

Olangco pointed to places where the bear damaged the doors and said, “I will try to fix it.”

Bears are now desperate to fatten up before hibernating. But this year’s poor berry crop and lackluster salmon runs means more bears are looking for food in other places, like human garbage.

Black bear
young black bear lingers in the front yard of a KTOO employee’s house in July 2018 , effectively blocking entrance to the home. (Photo courtesy Matt Miller)

Abby McAllister, a wildlife education and outreach specialist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, explains that more bears are competing for what little food is available.

A better berry crop and decent fish runs last year meant more new cubs survived the winter. McAllister said those bears, which she calls a bumper crop of yearlings, have just been kicked out by mom. But they’re still inexperienced about a lot of things.

“Whether or not they should avoid humans, whether or not they should venture into the person’s backyard and you know, get into their trash,” said McAllister, who explained that the yearling bears are still testing and are learning.

“They may appear bolder, if for that reason. But mostly they just don’t know any better,” McAllister said. “They’re kind of like a teenager on their own for the first time just trying to figure out things. They make a lot of mistakes along the way.”

The number of bear-related calls into ADF&G and the Juneau Police Department already totals at least 687. That’s double last year at this time.

They’ve responded to thirteen different bears so far. That’s on track as most ever for the year. Of those thirteen bears, four were moved far away from town. Nine were killed because they were a threat to life or property.

Olangco lives in Creekside Park, a neighborhood of manufactured and mobile homes in Lemon Creek. Garages pretty much don’t exist here. Many yards aren’t big enough for a shed. Only a fraction of the garbage cans put out are actually bear resistant.

Bear resistant can
Kristen Romanoff of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game with a bear-resistant garbage can that was put out on trash day in a Lemon Creek neighborhood. (Matt Miller/KTOO)

Loren Brown, Juneau site manager for garbage utility Alaska Waste, told Juneau assembly members recently that about 1,500 out of 8,000 total residential customers have bear resistant cans, which automatically unload when turned upside down by a garbage truck lift.

“None of them are bear proof,” Brown said, gently correcting an assembly member who posed a question about existing garbage cans. “That will get us in trouble if I say they’re bear proof, for sure. They’re bear resistant.”

Brown said there’s a waiting list of a hundred customers for the newest, bear resistant cans.

“It really depends on bear issues,” Brown told assembly members. “This year is the worst it’s been in years. It’s just hard to say what number is enough.”

Brown said 350 more cans are on order. But they’re more expensive to use and only come in one size so far, the biggest that is currently produced for residential customers. They won’t arrive for another month or two, too late for this season.

For now, there’s the Juneau Bear Committee. Members recently walked through many of Juneau’s neighborhoods on their respective trash days.

JBC sticker
Kristen Romanoff of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game applies a Juneau Bear Committee sticker to a garbage can. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

Laurie Craig and Kristen Romanoff walked through Creekside Park on a recent Friday morning, talking with residents and putting yellow and black stickers on garbage cans that are not bear-resistant.

The stickers also lay out Juneau’s garbage ordinance. Specifically, it points to the rule that says garbage must be kept inside an enclosed structure until 4 a.m. on pick up day.

One resident tells them she’s already had a bear tear into her enclosed entryway where she keeps her garbage.

“My day off is Friday,” she said. “So, like when I hear the garbage truck come, I bring it out. My coming out right now is to bring (the can) back in.”

Romanoff and Craig respond with a “Perfect!” and “That’s great!”

From residents Craig has talked to, she believes everyone wants to do the right thing. But some are not sure how.

Craig said that’s where community education is key for preventing Juneau’s bears from becoming habituated to garbage — and getting killed.

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Matt Miller is a reporter at KTOO in Juneau.