As spring snows recede over the landscape each year, the inevitable awakening of the ursine population is sure to follow. While not necessarily a daily occurrence, the potential for a bear encounter does constitute an ever-present threat to public safety, and each spring the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) reiterates its guidelines for avoiding bear encounters.
• Make your presence known.
• Travel in a group.
• Give bears plenty of room.
• Give bears the opportunity to avoid you. Detour around areas where you see or smell carcasses of fish or animals, or see scavengers congregated.
• Don’t attract bears with food or garbage.
• Carry bear repellent.
ADF&G Wildlife Biologist Jacob Pelham said that the two most important factors to avoiding contact in a residential setting are minimizing attractants and carrying repellants.
“Our biggest thing for bears and bear safety is first of all managing your attractants, whether it be your trash, domestic animals, your chicken coops, barbecue grills,” Pelham said. “As far as your day-to-day, assuming you’ve got all your trash picked up and your bird feeders are down in April and your freezers are locked and everything like that, we live in Alaska so you’ve got to keep your head on a swivel.”
Pelham also cautioned not to grow complacent in familiar surroundings.
“You could be going to the post office or anywhere and come across a wild animal, a bear this time of year, moose any other time of year, including this one,” he said. “Just because you’ve walked the same path for the past 30 years doesn’t mean tomorrow it couldn’t be something completely different. If you’re out for a hike, always have some kind of deterrent with you and use whatever kind of deterrent you are most comfortable with, whether that’s bear spray or a firearm. Whatever you are most comfortable using, carry that and learn how to use that.”
For those who prefer bear spray, Pelham said, significant misinformation has circulated concerning its use.
“Bear spray is for spraying the bear in the face once it gets to 25 to 35 feet to divert its charge,” he said. “Don’t spray your bear spray until you need to use it to defend your life. Just spraying it up in the air is not going to repel that animal. Also, don’t spray it on things, thinking it’s going to repel it. If you’re going camping, don’t spray it on your tent, thinking that’s going to keep the bears away. It’s counterproductive that way because it’s a pepper smell, and just the smell itself could actually attract a bear. However, the active ingredient, capsaicin, when sprayed into the face, into the nasal cavity, into the eyes, burns, and will absolutely stop and divert its charge for you to have time to flee the area and get to a safe place.”
As for attractants, Pelham said that a particular concern is the growing prevalence of chicken coops.
Just as important as preventing encounters is filing an official ADF&G report in the event one occurs, according to Pelham. Anyone who shares a local wildlife encounter through Facebook should first report the same information to ADF&G at adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm? adfg=reportwildlifeencounter.main for the sake of safety and for the overall benefits of data collection. Reporting sightings to ADF&G also ensures a timely and efficient response, no matter the situation.
“That can be anything from just seeing a moose walking down the road that has a limp to a bear aggressively charging somebody or if you saw a bird with a broken wing,” Pelham said. “It could be injured or sick animals, orphaned animals, humans injured by wildlife, aggressive or bold animals, animals inciting concern, animals in trash. Basically, anything going on with wildlife, you can put it in here and it geocodes it. As soon as that goes in, it dings our email so we can respond as quickly as we need to.”
It also offers ADF&G a tool for tracking activity, rather than resorting to hearsay.
“When things like this happen, it is important for us to hear about it,” Pelham said. “Just reporting it on Facebook doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to get it across our desk. It’s a lot of hearsay: ‘Heard a lot of bear reports or bear instances in Seward.’ Well, the more people we can get on board with using this, the more we’re able to actually put data behind it. That’s why we’re trying to stress to people to use this, so we can get more data so we can use more science behind the management and understand different trends of the wildlife.”
“We’re coming up on calf moose season, so that’s another way that people can report, if they think they have a calf moose on their property,” he said. “First of all, I’d want to say, keep your distance. Stay away from it. Do not approach that animal. If you think you have an orphaned calf moose, go online to our Wildlife Encounter Report Manager. Go through all the selections, select ‘orphaned animal’ and fill that out. If it’s in the evening, we’ll probably call you first thing in the morning. We like to respond pretty quickly to these types of things.”
Pelham went on to offer an additional word of caution: do wait until an unusual sighting becomes an encounter.
“Report aggressive and bold animals, even brown bears that look bold,” he said. “‘Well, this brown bear’s really been hanging around. I’m not sure why.’ Throw it on the Encounter Report Manager. We want to hear about it. We’re able to have more outreach that way, even if it’s just us giving a call to that person and talking to them and trying to explain behavior more. It’s definitely helpful for both us and the public.”
Pelham stressed that only through public input can ADF&G data collection prove its worth.
“That is one of the goals, that we’ll be able to better educate ourselves and therefore also the public,” he said, “because we’ll be able to see the trends taking place and then we can communicate that to the public better.”
In the end, he concluded, the three main components of bear safety are prevention, preparedness and reporting.
“It comes down to these preventable circumstances,” he said. “If you have chickens, put up electric fencing. Store the feed properly. If you have dogs or a dog team, store the dog food as safely as possible in a very different area, a container away from the dogs. Pick up the trash. Get everything cleaned up and keep your eyes out for bears. Be safe, enjoy the outdoors, and let us know what you see and hear through the Wildlife Encounter Report Manager.”
For more information on electric fencing programs, contact Jacob Pelham through the ADF&G Soldotna office at (907) 262-9368. To file an encounter report through the ADF&G Wildlife Encounter Report Manager, visit adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=reportwildlifeencounter.main.