Biologist: Make a bear plan

Sometime during the night on May 19, likely when he was watching “The Voice” at a loud volume in his home, a brown bear tore the right driver’s mirror from his Subaru, smashed its right tail light and rear window, ripped off the back windshield wiper, left muddy claw marks on the remaining widows, and shoved the entire vehicle about 8 inches in the gravel driveway.

“It would have been a lot more exciting if I had woke up and caught him in the act,” Sterling resident Norm Israelson said. He could have been sleeping when it happened, too, he said. He is not sure.

Jeff Selinger, Kenai area wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, visited the Israelson at his home to collect samples.

He said May is the time of year when bears are beginning to leave their dens and Kenai Peninsula residents should begin bear-proofing their homes and traveling in the wilderness safely.

Odors — from caught fish, bird feed, garbage or dog waste — can attract bears to residents’ property and neighborhood, he said.

He said garbage cans should be rinsed out, fat drippings scrubbed from barbeques, dog waste picked up, any rotting meat removed from compost piles and food juices cleaned from recycling. A diluted bleach solution is effective when cleaning surfaces, he said.

“Anything you can do to reduce odors that bears may be attracted to around your house will help,” Selinger said.

Also, chest freezers should be kept inside, he said. If stored outside, and it contains fish or moose, it should be locked securely to prevent a bear from breaking in. Food in the freezer can also be Ziplocked to reduce its odor.

Anything around a property that may attract a bear, like a freezer or chicken coop, should be guarded with electrical fencing, he said. Electrical fences must contain at least four strands, be properly grounded and deliver between 5,000 and 7,000 volts to effectively deter a bear.

Electric fences should also be checked annually, he said. Tall grass or weeds touching the strands will sap the fence’s voltage, and its wiring may have frayed through the winter.

The trick to discouraging bears from breaking into residents’ property, Selinger said, is ensuring no food is available. Otherwise, a bear will see it as a reward for its efforts.

“We’re going to have odors, but if they get there and had no food reward, they won’t come back as frequently,” he said.

Selinger said it is important for an entire neighborhood to prepare for bear season. It only takes one disheveled home to welcome a bear to the neighborhood, he said.

If a bear is spotted in a neighborhood, or a neighbor’s property has been a consistent concern, report them to the police or Fish and Game, he said.

“Now, all that said, you need to be prepared what do to if a bear does show up,” he said.

As more people recreate in the wilderness, or just outside, Selinger said they should outline an action plan ahead of time in case they do encounter a bear. “Don’t generate a plan when you’re out in the woods and you see a bear,” he said.

People should travel in groups as large as possible and as often as possible, he said. They should make noise or, if they are hunting, study their surroundings: circling scavenger birds could mark a kill and the likely presence of a bear, he said.

At least one person in the group should be trained with either bear spray or a firearm, he said, and they must also carry it.

“I know bear spray can be pretty spendy — $40, $50 a bottle — but it’s cheap compared to the alternative,” he said.

Practice with both is important, too, he said. “I know it sounds silly,” he said, but pulling a gun or bear spray on a bear should be instinctive. He said inert bear spray is available for practice.

As part of the bear plan, the group must know who is carrying the bear spray or firearm, he said. If a brown bear attacks, the group should clump together and send the person with the bear spray or gun in front, he said. 

A single hiker should assume the defensive position — balled up with arms and legs hugged in tight, guarding their vital organs, he said. If the attack persists, they must fight back, he said.

But “these are generalization, because every situation is different,” he said.

Selinger said anyone who has a negative encounter with a bear should report where and when it happened to Fish and Game.

“Give them space. Even if you do everything right, sometimes things just go wrong,” he said.