A sow and three cubs are seen on Wrangell Avenue this week in Petersburg. Local police tried to chase them out of town. (Photo by Vicki McIntosh)

Petersburg has seen an unusual amount of black bears in town this year. Biologists think the bears’ natural food sources have been hard to come by. It’s been a low salmon and berry year and the bears are in town looking for meals. KFSK’s Angela Denning reports:

There have been a lot of black bears in Petersburg this fall. The local police department has responded to many calls from concerned residents. Also on stand by is Frank Robbins, the Area Management Biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

“It’s been busy, it’s been really busy,” he said. “We had bears that came into the city limits pretty early this summer and it’s continued.”

Robbins won’t try to guess how many individual bears they’ve dealt with. One of the latest incidents was a black bear sow and her three cubs near Petersburg’s elementary school Tuesday afternoon. The four bears were chased out of town by local police shooting them with deterrents–bean bags and rubber bullets. Kids were held after school until the coast was clear.  

Robbins says the cubs were from last year and are around 18-months-old. Their mother has helped them survive for a year and a half but now, they’re learning bad habits in town and their fate is uncertain.

“That’s the ultimate problem,” Robbins said. “You get food conditioned bears. At that point, we have a real concern, even if we capture them and relocate they’re going to come right back because they know food is readily available.”

The state has already relocated three other bears to the southern end of Mitkof Island about 30 miles away. But Robbins says the bears won’t stop coming back into town if they can find food in trash bins. He says most residents he talks to understand the issue and are being responsible but it only takes one home in a neighborhood to create a problem.

Robbins says people might not see the trash remnants near their homes but he’s found a lot of garbage strewn about on the muskeg.

“In some of the muskeg there’s trash scattered everywhere,” he said. “Bears will come in and if they can access the trash bag they’ll grab it and they’ll carry it out into the muskeg where it’s more secluded and they can rifle through it and find the goodies.”

If it becomes habitual behavior, it can lead to bears getting braver and breaking into people’s homes.  At that point, the animals would be put down by authorities. It can also cause run-ins with residents. The state fined a resident for negligently feeding and also killing a bear in August.

Local hunters are also bringing home moose to butcher now and it’s important for scraps to be disposed of appropriately. Robbins says bears are just looking for calories before hibernation.

“We live in bear country and keeping bears away from human food and garbage is the most important thing we can do to prevent conflicts and confrontations between bears and people,” he said.

Petersburg’s trash cans distributed by the borough are not bear proof. They are large plastic bins with a flip top lid and are easily knocked over. The borough advises trash customers to keep their bins secure and only put them out to the curb on the day of trash collection.