In many parts of Alaska it’s not uncommon to see a black bear lumbering through a neighborhood, especially in the summer or fall. The animals are crafty at getting into trash if it’s not secured. But this season, it seems like more bears have been spotted around Juneau scavenging for food, and scientists think they know why.
Melissa Griffiths used to have an outdoor camera for security. But after buying a house on Douglas Island, her motivation for around-the-clock surveillance changed.
“We when we moved here, we decided we would make it a nature cam, and it’s been very effective,” Griffiths said. “This year, we’ve seen a lot of bear activity, some porcupines, some deer.”
Griffiths lives in a subdivision on a hillside. Her backyard leads into a huge expanse of forest. And this has become the scene of a familiar visitor.
She pulls her out her cell phone to show me footage of a chubby black bear.
“He comes down from the left of the playhouse in search of trash,” Griffiths described.
This isn’t speculative. The bear reappears later in the video carrying what looks like a small plastic bag of garbage in its mouth.
“It’s not the first time it’s happened where we’ve seen a bear, could be a different bear, taking a bag of trash up the hill,” Griffiths said.
Griffiths emphatically states: this is not her trash. She reckons it’s from somewhere else in the neighborhood. Still, she’s had to clean the mess up on several occasions. Her partner even broke two wooden spoons banging on a pan, trying scare the bears away.
Griffiths wanted to get the word out about securing garbage.
“So, for the Douglas Island block party, I got this wild idea that I should make a trash bear cake,” Griffiths said.
The red velvet cake was shaped like a bear sitting on top of a dumpster. There were even little replicas of Rainier beer cans made out of fondant strewn about.
Griffiths doesn’t remember catching any bears on the camera last summer. But this year, she’s spotted them in the yard at least 20 times. And she reported the uptick to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Carl Koch is one of the management biologists who reviews that information.
“Could be anything from ‘I saw a bear walking down the street’ to ‘There’s a bear ripping into my garbage or my chickens or my garage’,” Koch said.
Last year, Fish and Game and the Juneau Police Department received roughly 470 calls about bear activity. By the end of August this year, they had already fielded more than 600.
“This is the busiest year that I’m aware of since I worked here,” Koch said.
But how unusual is all of the bear activity? Every summer, it seems like there’s a story of a city bear getting into trouble: a bear walks into a bar, a bear gets a mayonnaise jar stuck on its head, a bear falls through a skylight onto a child’s birthday party.
But this year seems to be different. For starters, Koch says, biologists think more cubs may have been born in the spring, due to the mild winter.
So, there are possibly more bears and less natural food.
“A lot of the fish runs were poor and anecdotally, from what I’ve seen out in the woods, it seems like the berry run is low this year,” Koch said.
Bears typically eat salmon to fatten up for hibernation.
Dave Harris, a biologist with Fish and Game, says pink salmon will return to “any little trickle.” But they’re on a two-year cycle.
“We’re in a situation where our even-year pink salmon returns have become very depressed,” Harris said.
Harris says low pink returns are happening north of Petersburg up through the Inside Passage.
The last even year, 2016, was declared by Governor Bill Walker as a fisheries disaster. This year, commercial fleets in Southeast Alaska have reported catching half of that.
“This is about the worst I’ve seen,” Harris said.
Harris says fisheries biologists aren’t entirely sure what’s happening. One study points to even-year pink salmon being less genetically adaptable to changing ocean conditions, like warmer water, than the salmon that spawn in odd years.
On his survey flights, Harris has noticed more bears clustering around streams, almost like they’re competing.
“There’s just a lot less food now available in this poor return of pink salmon for the bears, so they’re looking for other things,” Harris said.
Sometimes those other things take the form of the stinky garbage sitting out on the curb.
Next year, biologists predict odd year pink salmon returns will be good. But in the meantime, the bear sightings could ramp up as they make that final push to find enough food before winter.