Don’t Feed the Bears – A Kenai, Alaska, Story
By Mike McGrath
When I was young, I watched a lot of wildlife/outdoorsy shows, and in middle school I briefly considered a career in freshwater ichthyology. This career track was abandoned later in life when I had to take high school biology.
Sadly, I have not turned out to be the adventurer/outdoors-person I once hoped to be, but I have done some backpacking, hiking, cross country skiing and scuba diving over the years, and it is always a special thrill to see something wild and scary, a puma crossing a high meadow or a black tipped shark swimming twenty feet below.
One thing I’ve never seen (outside of a zoo) is a bear. In fact, I’ve gone out of my way to avoid seeing bears, especially grizzlies. I find that singing “What Do You Do with A Drunken Sailor” at the top of your lungs is an effective bear avoidance strategy while hiking near West Yellowstone, Montana. Black bear encounters when camping in the Rockies and Sierras can be minimized by tossing a weighted rope over a tree limb and hoisting all packages of freeze dried spaghetti and ground beef Stroganoff into the air.
As any fool knows who has ever watched Animal Planet or an episode of Yogi Bear knows, it’s never a good idea to feed the bears.
Welcome to Kenai, Alaska, a town where the police are as likely to get a “negative human/bear interaction” call as a burglary or homicide. A major salmon fishery, Kenai is home to hundreds of hungry bears, both of the relatively innocuous black variety, and the more frightening subspecies of brown bear, the grizzly. Even the Latin classification—ursus arctos horribilis—is enough to inspire dread, and not without reason.
The sad fact is, however, that in the course of all these negative bear human interactions, a lot more of them get killed than us. Killing more than 20 Kenai bears a year, wildlife biologists say, could decimate the population. During the past decade, the number of bears killed by cars, citizens or authorities in or around Kenai doubled.
The main reason for these negative bear interactions, of course, is the careless storage or disposal of food. The city has what are known as “bear highways,” where bears know they can find garbage, bird seed, dog food, fish carcasses or fish in smokers or livestock feed. Bears get into freezers and tear down fences. They break into garages and homes. The locals see them wandering through parks and golf courses or strolling past bedroom windows in the dead of night.
Several years ago, the Alaska Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Alaska Audubon Society, Waste Management, Inc. and the City of Kenai instituted a “Bear-Safe Neighborhood” program. The upshot was no negative bear reports for a period of two years.
Because of its success, Fish and Game and the city decided to expand the program citywide. Kenai’s Wildlife Conservation Community Program has become a model for other Alaskan cities seeking to deal humanely with their bear issues. The main feature of the program is subsidizing the use of bear-resistant garbage containers in residential areas and local parks, but funds were also used to purchase and distribute thousands of copies of the Audubon Society’s “Living in Harmony with Bears,” a publication well worth reading if you live in bear country. Volunteers go door to door handing out info on bear safety and answering questions from residents. The success of the program has attracted interest from communities as far away as Crested Butte, Colorado. It is one of three projects—all devoted to environmental issues—the Kenai delegation will present at the annual All-America City Awards in Kansas City, June 15-17.
It’s heartening that Kenai—and several other finalist communities—have focused on wildlife preservation/environmental themes. Thanks to the news media and the political culture, a stereotype has been perpetuated to the effect that denizens of small towns in general and Alaskans in particular are especially hostile to environmental concerns.
You certainly can’t say that about Kenai. Click here to find out the communities three green themed All-America City projects—the Wildlife Conservation Community Program, the Kenai River Working Group and the Caring for Kenai initiative.
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.
Mike’s posts will appear every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.