PUBLISHED: 4:39 PM on Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Hoonah deals with growing brown bear problems
This summer at a new Hoonah housing development, a brown bear tried to turn over a camper. There was a man inside. He called police, who shot the bear.

On Halloween, a bear attacked a truck parked at a town hotel. In the past six months, the police department has responded to more than 120 bear calls. Officers have shot and killed four since late summer.

There have been no reports of deadly attacks in the last few years, but there have been two maulings. And many locals have had close calls. Earlier this month, overnight police dispatcher Annette McLaughlin had one in the middle of the night.

"There was a noise outside the station so I went to see what it was. There was a bear at the dumpster and when he spotted me, he got down and came towards the stairs where I was standing," McLaughlin said.

She backed into the station and the bear then headed for a house owned by a police officer. The officer shot the bear, believing it extremely dangerous. It was so large it took a backhoe to move it to the rear of the police station.

That's where village elder Owen James removed its hide. James has hunted bears for about 40 years. He said he eats bear meat, but won't touch this one.

"It's been in the community and up at the dump a lot. This time of year when the Native people used to get bears, they took the fat for cooking," he said.

Alaska tour books claim Admiralty Island has more brown bears per square mile than any other place in the state. Municipal officials in Hoonah on neighboring Chichagoff Island are challenging that claim. They say the animals are wandering into their village in greater numbers than ever. They're crafting a garbage ordinance to prevent residents from leaving trash in bear friendly places. Officials are lobbying the state Department of Fish and Game for a more lenient hunting policy.

Hoonah Police Chief Hugh Miller said his officers sometimes have to chase bears long after work shifts have ended. That can mean overtime expenses. When officers do kill a bear, the town has to pay to have it skinned. A large pelt can sell for several thousand dollars, but Hoonah has to send hides to the state. Miller said money from sold pelts should be returned to the community to compensate for expenses.

He believes bears are coming into town more often thanks to a new burn barrel at the town dump. Hoonah installed it at the order of the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The dump is up a dirt road, about a mile from the center of town.

The burn barrel is a chain link structure about the height of a two-storey house. It sits in a gulley. The structure's top opens and residents can throw trash in. The barrel contains everything from deer carcasses and fish heads to soda cans. Miller said sometimes the dump is crawling with brown bears.

On a late weekday morning in mid-November, there's only one. It's about 800 pounds, a bit smaller than the one behind the police station. Miller believes the burn barrel is preventing easy access to freshly dumped trash. That's sending bears into town in search of food. Miller is basing his bear ordinance on Juneau's trash disposal law. He expects to present it to the Hoonah city council in December.

Lavern Beier has been studying Chichagoff Island brown bears since the 1980s. The researcher with the Department of Fish and Game said the population seems to be peaking on Chichagoff and in other parts of Southeast Alaska. He said the increasing number of bears is unrelated to negative human - bear interactions. The bear expert says the reason the animals wander into town is because they've become accustomed to eating trash at the open landfill. It's much easier than searching for berries or salmon. Beier said Hoonah and several other Southeast Alaska towns have to do a better job of keeping bears out of landfills.

For now, Hoonah residents wish the bears would just go into hibernation.