Juneau’s garbage bear problem fixable, experts say

Juneau Police are not currently citing residents for violating the city’s bear ordinance when a crafty bruin pops the lid on one of those new garbage cans provided by Arrow Refuse.

As we reported earlier this week, city officials are trying to get the word out that the roll carts are not bear resistant.

Police and wildlife officials say bears are especially active right now, and the new trash bins are providing an easy source of food.

A dozen years ago, the city faced a similar problem, leading to the CBJ bear ordinance, which prohibits leaving garbage cans out except after 4 a.m. on pickup day.

KTOO’s Casey Kelly looks at how the current issue compares.

Photographer Pat Costello served on Juneau’s ad hoc Urban Bear Committee from 2000 to 2001. Former Mayor Sally Smith formed the committee after five bears were shot in the Capital City in one year. Costello says the problem then, as now, had to do with trash. Dumpsters around town had been fitted with flimsy plastic lids.

“And the dumpsters, of course, were sitting out 24-7,” Costello says. “So, we saw a huge spike in activity with bears. And a whole generation of bears was educated on the whole garbage thing.”

The solution then was to replace the plastic lids with metal ones. And to have the Juneau Assembly pass an ordinance making it illegal to keep smelly garbage sitting out in a non-bear resistant container.

Costello says some residents are assuming the new garbage cans are okay to leave out.

“People think that they’re bear proof,” he says. “And they definitely aren’t.”

Juneau Police Community Service Officer Bob Dilley is trying to change that perception. He says police are responding to reports all over town of bears getting into the new cans.

“What we’re finding is the bears either bounce up and down on top of them, or stand on top of them and get the lid to pop a little bit and they can use their claws to open them up,” Dilley says. “So, if you’re leaving those out in your yard, the bear is likely to get into them.”

Wildlife Biologist Ryan Scott with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game says it doesn’t take long for bears to identify a readily available source of food.

“In the past, with the bear proof or the bear resistant cans, we might get a bear that gets into a can, and if we can get that remedied, we seem to have pretty good success getting the animal to move on,” Scott says. “This year we are seeing where bears are going from can to can to can.”

Scott says the best solution is for people to follow the bear ordinance, and not leave garbage cans out, especially when they’re full of dinner scraps.

“Everybody who lives in Juneau knows we have great bear habitat and even if we remove a bear, we’re probably just making a hole for a new bear if the food source is still out there,” says Scott.

Dilley says police are using this time to educate the public about the bear ordinance, but eventually will begin writing tickets again. He says the new containers do meet the city’s regulations, so long as they’re kept in a bear resistant structure except on garbage day. And yes, he’s heard from people who built bruin-proof enclosures that are too small for the new cans.

“If you took the time to build a structure like that and it’s been effective at keeping a bear out, you can still keep your garbage and your old cans in that enclosure,” says Dilley. “And then come garbage day you can dump it in your new can and haul that out to the curb.”

A dozen years ago, Costello’s website featuring some of his nature photography, included a number of shots capturing Juneau’s garbage bears. He says the issues then were much more pervasive than they are now.

“As long as people keep their garbage enclosed as they should under the law, hopefully this won’t turn into the same kind of situation,” says Costello.

The current law has been on the books since 2004, and calls for fines up to $300.

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