It’s been a rough fall for both black bears and humans in Petersburg. A low salmon and berry year have brought more bears to town than normal as they seek out calories before hibernation. As KFSK’s Angela Denning reports, residents have had some close encounters near their homes.
Black bears have kept Petersburg on its toes this fall.
Alaska Wildlife Troopers are investigating multiple incidents of residents shooting bears in town. The state’s Area Management Biologist has relocated four bears from in town to the southern end of Mitkof Island. Petersburg police have chased bears out of town with flashbangs and other nonlethal deterrents.
The police department has responded to regular phone calls from concerned residents.
“Oh, easily dozens,” said Police Chief James Kerr. “Since I’ve been in Petersburg, this is the most bear incidents we’ve had.”
Meanwhile, for some residents, it gets personal.
A baby black bear was loudly “crying” on Rachel Newport’s deck in the middle of the night this month. She’s videotaped the tiny bear and its mother several times at her home in Severson’s Subdivision. Once the adult bear had its front paws up on Newport’s living room window.
Many Petersburg residents have had encounters with black bears this fall.
“The bear wasn’t scared that we were yelling at it, it just kept going from driveway to driveway,” said Jenna Durst, who also lives in Severson’s Subdivision. She says she’s had regular bear activity around her home on Vesta Street. Her family doesn’t have a garage so they’ve tied the lid of their trash bin down with rope.
“Our garbage can has claw marks all over it from it trying to get into our garbage,” Durst said. “My car also has scratches all down the side because my car, where it parks in our carport, is right next to where we put our can so when it gets our can it scratches the whole side of my car and there’s nowhere else for me to park.”
Durst says police have tried to chase the bears away. She says what seems most helpful are neighbors keeping each other informed about where the bears are. Durst has two young children. She doesn’t allow them to play outside alone anymore nor her 7-year-old to walk to the bus.
She wants other residents to secure their garbage so hopefully the bears will move on.
“Make sure that the bear knows when it comes to your house it’s not going to be able to get into your garbage so it stays away,” said Durst. “But even that’s not working; it still comes by trying to get it so. . . I don’t know the answer.”
Anthony Curtiss lives near Sandy Beach Road at the bottom of 14th Street.
“I feel like they’re definitely not scared at all anymore, absolutely not scared of people or anything,” he said.
Curtis says his garbage bin was damaged by a bear when it broke the hinge near the lid. He says that particular bear had been roaming around his house regularly for days and eventually entered the garage.
“The garage door was open from the night before and I went out there—we have a door from our house to the garage— I opened that door and the bear was like five to eight feet from me,” said Curtiss. “My dog started barking at it and it didn’t move so I had to start running at it and yelling at it.”
The bear did run away. Curtiss had been keeping his dog’s food in the garage and there is a freezer full of food there and he thinks that might have attracted the bear.
Tamara Evens has lived on Sandy Beach Road for 15 years and has never seen so much bear activity around. For several days this fall, she watched a sow and three yearling cubs eating roots near her beach. Evens says she was nervous but exercised caution and enjoyed watching the bears from a distance. But then…
“A few nights later, I heard a lot of commotion on my porch and looked out to see one of the cubs bellowing and bleeding while the others were coming down the driveway,” Evens said.
The next time Evens saw the bears, there were only two cubs. The mama and two cubs came up to Evens’ house one night when she and her husband were grilling moose burgers inside. The sow put her front paws up on a nearby window. Then the mother bear ripped siding off the house near the vent from the stove. Evens turned off the vent and eventually the bears went away.
Soon after, Evens no longer saw the cubs. She remembers getting a call from her neighbor who saw the sow near the beach.
“It looked like she was burying something in the grass. And then she finally figured it out that it was a dead baby,” Evens said. “So, I went over there and I watched her for a while. Even though some people claim animals don’t feel grief but what I saw sure looked like grief.”
All of the cubs are believed to have been shot by residents. Evens says local authorities took the buried cub away too.
Evens says she understands that it’s not safe to have a sow and cubs in a neighborhood. She just wishes everyone would keep their garbage stowed so the bears would move on. She says her neighbors were careful but it’s not easy for people without garages. She’d like the borough to come up with creative solutions like offering free garbage drop off at the dump when bears are around or bear proof trash bins.
Area Management Biologist Frank Robbins agrees that it’s a human garbage issue not a wildlife or management issue. He says the solution is to eliminate the source of food for bears and the problem will go away.
Alaska Wildlife Troopers have assisted Robbins with relocating bears and helping the police department with calls. The Troopers have issued several citations to residents for feeding game, in cases where they had not secured their trash. Troopers are not giving out details of the cases of bear killings that they are investigating, only that no bears have been killed by authorities.
Police Chief Kerr says the number of bear calls seems to have slowed down a bit. He’s not sure if it’s because there are less bears around or people are just getting more used to them.
“I think this year was definitely a learning experience,” said Kerr. “All the agencies working together as well as the community dealing with the bears.”
Kerr hopes that next year, the town can be more proactive in securing their garbage earlier in the season to deter bears from sticking around town.
For bear activity in Petersburg, residents should continue to call the police department first at (907) 772-3838. The P.D. shares all of the information with the state’s biologist, Frank Robbins, and the local Alaska Wildlife Troopers.