People and bears share space in Alaska — it’s a fact of life. Sometimes, that includes driveways and front lawns.
Visitors to Kenai Peninsula parks and trails often see signs with warnings about bears in the summer, particularly when the salmon are running. But bears often traverse through residential neighborhoods, too, especially those on the fringes of the more urban areas. When Michael Bernard was living in Sterling in 2012, he found out belatedly one day that a black bear had been traipsing through the neighborhood.
“I thought, ‘Wow, that’d have been good to know, because I have kids and they like to play outside,’” he said.
He got the idea to start a Facebook page specifically for neighbors to notify each other about bears, naming it simply “Kenai Peninsula Bears.” It was a relatively quiet neighborhood page for about the first year, but then a number of bears were spotted frequently in the Ciechanski Road and Poppy Lane areas near Kenai. The page “likes” skyrocketed in the course of a few weeks with people posting pictures and information.
Since then, he’s converted it to a group, which allows people to post directly to it instead of requiring a page moderator’s approval, and the membership has grown to about 2,700 people. That includes locals and people from all over the world — some of them just like to see bears, Bernard said. Most of the time, the conversation is constructive, just warning people to stay clear of an area and let the bears do their business.
“There’s a lot of people that will look at the page just to find out where the bears are at. I’ve noticed that a lot with the page in particular,” he said. “It seems like most of the time people are generally respectful and generally people are trying to be safe out there.”
The communities of the western Kenai Peninsula are an island of developed land sandwiched between Cook Inlet and the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, a 1.92-million acre wildlife preserve encompassing most of the peninsula. There are trails crisscrossing parts of the refuge, and there is the occasional incident between bears and people on the refuge, though no maulings have been reported so far this year. Refuge managers will close trails if there is a reported bear kill or high bear activity — in 2015, they did so after a young woman was mauled on the Cottonwood Creek Trail on the south side of Skilak Lake, said Matt Conner, the supervisory park ranger at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
But often, people want to see the bears, too, he said.
“The three most common questions I get at the Kenai Refuge are where can I go to see a bear, where can I go to not see a bear, and where are the restrooms?” he said. “(I tell them) You can see a bear anywhere any time in the state of Alaska … The fact that our bears are not leaning against mile marker 17 at 2 p.m. is a good thing, because they’re still wild.”
A refuge officer did have to kill a bear over the Fourth of July holiday at the Upper Skilak Lake Campground, Conner said. It was an elderly black bear that was going after coolers and didn’t back down when challenged, which presented a risk, he said. Though no one was hurt, the officer shot the bear to prevent future conflicts.
Conner noted that coolers are not airproof and campers should be careful not to leave them out where they make easy meals for bears.
Bear sighting reports are a little higher this year in Kenai than in some past years so far. The Kenai Police Department tracks bear reports and has received 14 so far in 2018 as compared to 12 in 2017, 8 in 2016 and 4 in 2015, said Police Chief Dave Ross in an email. Sometimes that’s the same bear being seen over and over in an area, he said.
In June, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game put out a live bear trap in Kenai in response to multiple bear sightings, but the bear never went into it and Fish and Game has since pulled the trap, said Area Management Biologist Jeff Selinger.
“We got a request from (the Kenai Police Department) to at least try it, so we did,” he said. “But I didn’t want to leave it out there for several days because if you do catch a bear, you don’t know if it’s the bear of interest. It’s hard to be selective. What if there’s a sow with two cubs, and a cub gets in there? How’s the sow going to react around that area? What if neighborhood dogs go in? The best answer for most of those situations is to minimize attractants and the bears go on their way.”
Kenai Parks and Recreation Department Director Bob Frates said he doesn’t recall frequent bear sightings in the city, but when they do happen, it’s usually in May and June and don’t cause problems for the personal-use dipnet fishery.
“The one area they have a tendency to visit or frequent in May and June would be the (Kenai) Municipal Park area, that drainage right through there that runs north up across the Spur Highway and up toward the cemetery,” he said.
Though Kenai Police Department officers have rubber bullets on hand and are occasionally trained on how to deal with bear issues, including charging bears, Ross said he didn’t recall the police department responding to a bear attack or an aggressive brown bear in the city.
In urban areas, the best way to prevent negative bear interactions is to control attractants — particularly trash.
The Kenai Parks and Recreation Department bought or received donations of bear-proof garbage containers several years ago to help minimize the likelihood of attracting a bear, Frates said. Whenever a bear is spotted in a Kenai park, the department posts warnings with the date and time of the sighting to put people on alert, he said.
Both Ross and Selinger encouraged people to control how much food and trash they leave out near their homes to reduce the likelihood of attracting a bear. Many people are attentive about it, but when a few people leave attractants out and bears get into a neighborhood, it can be an issue, Selinger said.
“I’ve been here since 2002, and there’s been a big change in people being aware and taking precautions to avoid attracting bears,” he said. “But we’re never going to avoid it. You’re going to cook food in your house and that’s going to produce a smell. You have fish in the river. You have barbecues in the campgrounds. You’re never going to eliminate scent attractants that lead bears to investigate the area. What you don’t want is for them to obtain food, because then they’re going to come back and teach their young to keep coming back to where food is easy to obtain.”
On the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, Conner said refuge staff and volunteers try to speak with visitors in areas where bears have been spotted to let them know to keep their backpacks close, pack their fish out whole if possible and keep attractants to a minimum. Recreating in groups and making noise helps to deter bear attacks, as many issues begin when a single hiker or pair of hikers surprises a bear. In general, people are more alert about bear danger when they come to Alaska, he said.
“We don’t want anybody to have bearanoia or be bearsadaisical,” he said.
In many neighborhoods, like Funny River Road or some of the more remote parts of Sterling, life with wildlife is part of the attraction. Bernard said much of the attitude on his Facebook page is people wanting to let their neighbors know but not asking for bears to be killed or removed.
“It seems like most of the time people are generally respectful and generally people are trying to be safe out there,” he said. “We live amongst them, and they come into the neighborhoods where we’re at … it’s a matter of keeping your neighborhood clean.”
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reach Ben Boettger at email@example.com.