Officials urge locals to lock car doors after bears caught opening vehicles

Bear activity is back on the rise and will only increase as hibernation grows nearer said officials.

A resident of downtown posted a series of photos on "Juneau Bear sightings” Facebook page that showed a bear eating garbage in the area on Thursday evening. According to the source, no amount of noise was able to scare the bear away from the area. (Courtesy / Angelique Buzzek)

Bustling streets, cars and hotels — bear activity has been increasing over the past three weeks, said wildlife officials and some are looking in unlikely places to grab some grub.

Carl Koch, the assistant area management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said the department is monitoring two black bears in the Mendenhall Valley area that have learned how to open car doors, and have caused “fairly significant damage” to at least three vehicles in the past few weeks. Another bear occurrence was shown on a recent post on the “Juneau Community Collective” Facebook page showed video footage of a bear running and climbing around the lobby of Best Western Country Lane Inn while the front desk attendant was on the phone. Another viral post showed a bear tearing into bags of garbage on a well-traveled downtown street.

Koch said despite the recent events, overall this year has been a relatively quiet year.

[Bear encounters are on the decline after years of increased activity]

This comes after two years of increased bear encounters in the Juneau area that necessitated multiple euthanizations because of safety concerns. This year Koch said Juneau has had 3-4 bears hit by vehicles, one of which died due to the impact.

He said the most concerning occurrence that he has seen and wants Juneau residents to be aware of is the increasing activity of bears climbing into or opening unlocked vehicles.

“Please remember to keep cars cleaned out,” Koch said. “Keeping them locked not only can prevent crime but also prevent bears from coming in.”

He said this occurrence is a relatively new phenomenon happening in Juneau over the past five years and speculated it could be because new car designs make it easier for a bear to open doors. He said it’s important for people to make sure they’re locking their cars and keeping vehicles free of food because bears can cause significant damage to both themselves and cars if they become trapped inside.

“If they get stuck inside, they’re eventually going to find a way out — and it’s usually not by opening the door,” he said.

He said another thing to be increasingly aware of as the summer progresses is bear activity will likely continue to increase the they start to transition into hyperphagia — their “last push to pack on calories” ahead of winter.

A bear looks into the waters of Steep Creek on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2022. Some bears have looked for food in less natural settings, including cars, and wildlife officials say the activity is likely to pick up as the animals try to pack on the pounds ahead of the winter. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

A bear looks into the waters of Steep Creek on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2022. Some bears have looked for food in less natural settings, including cars, and wildlife officials say the activity is likely to pick up as the animals try to pack on the pounds ahead of the winter. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

Hyperphagia typically runs from mid-August through to late September or October, and Koch said people should make sure they are doing preventative measures like locking their garbage, and livestock and removing any bird feeders or attractants that may bring bears into human-populated areas.

“We live in bear country and you have to be aware all the time, none of us are immune,” he said.

In a series of photos posted on the “Juneau Bear sightings” Facebook page, a resident posted photos of a bear eating garbage on the sidewalk that remained unmoved as other residents honked their horns and made noises in an effort to move the bear from the area.

“We couldn’t believe it,” said Angelique Buzzek, the resident who posted the images and watched the event take place. She said the bear remained eating the garbage for over an hour before it eventually casually meandered away.

“The bear looked very comfortable and had no interest in anybody, it just sat there like ‘Yeah this is great,’” she said.

She said it was a concerning situation as many people were out walking their dogs or going for a stroll and could have been in danger if other people weren’t around trying to get the bear to move. She said no matter how much noise was made, the bear seemed to have “no inclination” that there were people around it.

“Are bears just getting more and more comfortable with us?” she said. “We were all trying to think, ‘how do we help this bear?’”

She said she hopes an occurrence like this doesn’t happen again and said the community in the area did their best to help the bear while also keeping everyone safe.

However, Roy Churchwell, a Department of Fish and Game Juneau area biologist, said he’s not surprised by the bear’s behavior.

He described the behavior as most likely a sign of “habituation,” meaning that this isn’t the bear’s first time in the neighborhood, and likely won’t be the last if something doesn’t change.

He said if the bear knows that there is a good resource continuously available, in this instance garbage, the bear will continue to pursue the resource and eventually get used to human activity if they know nothing will happen to them besides a bit of noise.

[Reminder: Garbage cans can only be put on curb after 4 a.m. on pickup day]

He said it’s extremely important that people are locking their garbage at all times, but especially moving forward as bears start to transition into hyperphagia and will be more inclined to pursue food.

“As things progress, if people secure their garbage, bears won’t have any reason to stay in the neighborhoods and will just keep walking,” he said.

Contact reporter Clarise Larson at clarise.larson@juneauempire.com or at (651)-528-1807. Follow her on Twitter @clariselarson

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