As the fall and winter seasons approach, Haines must face the fact that the Chilkat Valley’s brown bear population is in peril, and inhabitants are tense and conflicted about how to respond. It can be difficult to get a consensus on the right course of action when it comes to wildlife-human conflicts, as it is with most other situations. Bears have a long history of extinction, and people have tried, often unsuccessfully, to learn to coexist with bears.
Bears have undoubtedly caused more headaches in Haines recently than they typically do. We stopped by a friend’s house in town one morning last October to find broken glass covering their gravel driveway. The car alarm had woken them up in the middle of the night, and their vehicle was rocking with a brown bear that had locked itself inside. Old snack crumbs buried in the crevices of their son’s car seat were the only thing that drew them in. The bear burst through the driver’s side glass and escaped into neighbouring woods just as the troopers arrived. Other residents had their outbuildings wrecked, their kitchens plundered, and their boats damaged. Pieciul’s automobile door had been wrenched off only a few months prior to his mauling.
Because travel limitations impeded response efforts, the bear task force formed in 2019 was less organised during the pandemic. Derek Poinsette, a member of the bear task team, said in a November 2020 storey on local radio station KHNS: “It does feel like we, myself included, did not do a very good job of really getting out ahead of this… I hope we can all reflect on what went wrong and try not to do it again.”
Bears, in any case, paid an exorbitant price for their hunger. A total of 49 dead bears, with an unofficial count of many more, is not a statistic that anyone wants to hear. Biologists are worried about the population’s long-term viability, hunters are facing severely decreased future harvests, and conservationists and bear enthusiasts are outraged by the indiscriminate bear slaughter. Despite the fact that bears are the ones that are most at risk when they come into contact with humans, many people in Haines are more afraid of bears than they have ever been.
Despite the fact that bicycle accidents and dog bites cause much more human injuries and deaths in Alaska than bear attacks, the picture of an aggressive grizzly remains one of our most feared and fascinating animal images. Stereotypes are frequently reinforced by the media, which is unsurprising. “The North American news media is generally prone to report dramatic, high-consequence, human tragedy tales concerning bears,” according to a recent study published in the scientific journal Conservation Science and Practice. As a result, risk aversion has increased.
The storey of bears as the enemy—the one that contains jaw-popping, flesh-tearing, beady-eyed horrors—is at odds with stories of marauding bears as hazards to public safety. The truth, on the other hand, is far less dramatic. Bears survive not because they are monsters, but because they are resourceful. They have distinct personality traits and routines, and they learn in response to their surroundings, just like we do. And we’ve done a poor job of training them in many circumstances.
It’s true that living in a neighbourhood with thousand-pound carnivores isn’t always easy. I regularly moan when I wake up to new tracks on our beach travelling in the wrong direction, and I wish bears didn’t prefer the same strawberry patches as my children do. On several occasions, bears have ploughed through our electric fence and gotten too near for comfort. But, even when so-called “problem bears” lived in our backyard, we’ve never had a severe bear problem. A sow and her yearling cub grazed the pastures near our cabin for many weeks last summer. They never tried to do anything other than live like bears, despite their close closeness to our house. Unfortunately, they made the mistake of going into town, and they were discovered dead four days after our neighbour last saw them.
Although there is no one-size-fits-all strategy to resolving human-bear conflicts, experts agree that an efficient bear management plan necessitates the securement of human food and garbage. Many precautions, such as bear-resistant trash cans, electrified fences, and locked doors, have been demonstrated to work in other areas. Not every system is faultless, and none of us are flawless. It is, nonetheless, unforgivable not to try. “The loss of 50 bears from this small, isolated population must serve as a wake-up call,” Crupi says. “We failed to secure our chickens, fruit trees, compost, porch freezers, and garbage cans, which resulted in the deaths of too many bears.”
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s outreach initiatives have primarily been virtual to date, but with COVID-related limitations relaxing, more hands-on trainings, including local demonstrations on how to set up electric fences, are planned. A initiative aimed at assisting residents in harvesting fruit trees before they attract bears is gaining traction. At the same time, hunting has been severely curtailed for the forthcoming 2021 season, which runs from September to December, in order to analyse the effects of the 2020 mortalities and allow the population to recover.
What makes Alaska unique is the reality of living in a place that does not bend to our will. Most other elements of our lives have been shorn of the promise of wildness.
Most importantly, a recent Haines rule not only forces residents to secure edible attractants, but also imposes fines if the situation isn’t handled within a week. Even after some residents continually failed to comply, a similar law was passed in 2010, but just a few citations were issued over the next decade. The fate of bears and humans in the Chilkat Valley will ultimately be decided by local activities, not advice. And action is contingent on public support.
Other continuing study will aid in the long-term reduction of human-bear conflicts. Crupi’s research is the first of its kind in the area, and it has helped determine not only den site characteristics, but also where bears spend their time and where they can encounter challenges. His crew has followed everything from illicit hunting to freezer break-ins to far-flung, glacier-trotting journeys using satellite data. Crupi, an ardent backcountry skier who wants to help prevent bear encounters, designed an app layer that can be layered on a topographic map to indicate prospective bear denning habitat. This risk assessment method uses elevation, slope angle, snow loading, and vegetation cover to determine the relative likelihood that a bear will choose specific sites for denning, similar to how skiers evaluate hazardous avalanche slopes. Crupi admits that it’s still a work in progress, but it’s a good starting point for identifying regions where skiers and bears are most likely to collide.