Sitka committee wants to bring back bear task force after deadly season for brown bears

A giant brown bear paw.
Cadets from the Public Safety Training Academy learn how to skin a bear that was shot by a Sitka resident in 2017. Many in Sitka feel that 2021 — with 13 brown bears killed so far — is the worst year in recent memory for problem bears. “Yeah, it just seems way too okay for them to be in town,” said Woody Cyr. (Cameron Clark/KCAW)

Sitka’s Fish and Game Advisory Committee wants to revive a local working group to look for solutions to the Southeast community’s growing bear problem.

So far this year, 13 brown bears have been killed in Sitka — 12 by wildlife authorities and one killed by a car, and its cub was later euthanized by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Area management biologist Steve Bethune told the committee at its Oct. 27 meeting that he doesn’t know what kind of toll the deaths have taken on the larger bear population of Baranof Island. That’s because not much is known about the total number of bears. He wants the committee to ask the state Board of Game to do a study and learn more.

“With everything that is going on around here, I would be really interested in a Baranof estimate,” he said. “We’ve had population estimates on north Admiralty and northeast Chichagof. We’ve never had one anywhere on Baranof Island. So a lot of people anecdotally think that the population is increasing. I can’t say with any data to support that one way or the other.”

Bethune said he’s convinced that easy access to garbage is what brings bears into town. Over a decade ago, a Sitka Bear Task Force was formed to look into the problem and to explore possible solutions like upgraded garbage cans.

Committee member Andrew Thoms served on the original task force, which advised the Sitka Assembly to enact ordinances governing how and when Sitkans can dispose of garbage. It did not recommend bear-proofing measures on cans.

“Brown bears can get into whatever,” he said. “They are really strong. And so all of those things just don’t work. And that’s where it came down to: You have to keep your garbage inside, reduce the amount of garbage, you have or take it down to Crescent Harbor, or the transfer station and drop it off.”

The flaw in that plan was compliance. Bethune said that just one or two homes improperly handling trash can bring bears into a neighborhood.

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Committee member Tad Fujioka suggested another idea.

“What if you looked at it from the other way, and we had some booby-trapped garbage cans out there?” Fujioka asked.  “Maybe it would only take one or two bad experiences for a bear to associate that big black thing with an unfavorable experience.”

Bethune said he was interested in hearing creative ideas to address Sitka’s bear problem. He’s been a vocal advocate for the use of simple, electric fences in Sitka — equipment that is relatively inexpensive.

But for some committee members, there already was a proven method for managing bears in town.

“It’s horrible and it sucks, but I think being aggressive with lethal take is not a bad thing at all,” said Woody Cyr. “And that by taking some (bears) quicker, you save more in the long run. Yeah, it seems like it’s just way too okay for them to be in town.”

Member Jeff Feldpausch also was reluctant to move forward with a new task force. He said it seemed likely to lead to the same result.

“Basically, it is going to attack the public and require them to come up with either more money to pay fines or more money to build a shed or whatever,” he said. “And it’s just going to turn back on the public. So I’m voting no.”

Feldpausch said that his strategy of choice was “to thin the bears.”

Biologist Bethune said thinning the bear population around Sitka is not an option. The landscape has changed in recent years — literally. Prior to 2020, Sitka National Historical Park’s trails were crowded daily with visitors, and bears were rarely seen. In the last two years, however, Bethune said the park had become a sort of wildlife refuge in the absence of tourists.

“And we’ve had a pretty good — almost a cooperative — agreement between people and bears for many years where people park is for people during the daytime, and bears use it at night,” Bethune said. “And it’s become a place where bears are roaming freely all day long. And it is potentially now a dangerous situation.”

Bethune has examined all of the 13 bears killed in Sitka this year. None were skinny or hungry, he said. They enough fat stores to survive the winter. That hasn’t always been the case with Sitka’s bears, he said. Their circumstances change year to year. And so do the attitudes of Sitka’s human residents.

“This town is different than it was 20 years ago, when I hear all kinds of stories about, you know, we used to have a landfill,” he said. “So when a bear showed up in the landfill, we’d just kill it and roll it into the burn pit. Or back in the mill days, people would just kill a bear when it came into a neighborhood. So it’s just a different … different mentality now than it used to be.”

On a split vote, the Sitka Fish and Game Advisory Committee urged the Sitka Assembly to take measures to mitigate the bear problem. The committee will also send a letter to the Board of Game in support of a bear population study on Baranof Island.

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Robert Woolsey is a reporter at KCAW in Sitka.