PUBLISHED: 4:05 PM on Wednesday, December 5, 2007
The trouble (and joy) of living with bears
This fall's flurry of man-bear conflicts might make outsiders conclude there's some rash of blood-thirsty man-eating bears afoot.

Especially in cases like that of Juneau Dr. John Raster, who was walking along an Admiralty Island beach Friday when a brown bear tackled and mauled him. Luckily in most cases like Dr. Raster's the mauling victims survive.

But the reality is that the bears are just being bears. And we live in bear country. The big brownies are hardly behind every tree, but especially islands like Admiralty and Chichagoff have more bears than just about any place on earth.

Most of the time that's a wondrous thing.

I still chuckle over a label an Idaho friend and ecology writer liked to use. When referring to Yellowstone grizzlies that kept strolling out of the park and chewing up elk and elk hunters, Rocky loved to call them "Charismatic Mega-Fauna."

Charismatic may depend on circumstances.

The sight of a great old bear ambling through the brush or along a beach, chocolate legs and blonde back fur glowing under rare bright sunlight, is one of the most majestic sights in Nature.

That same beast trying to break into your cabin, walk off with your moose or rearrange your anatomy into a stack of spare parts, is quite another thing.

I won't pretend to be a bear expert.

My sum experience close at hand with the giant bears is a single successful hunt. Seeing the fierce anger in that boar's eye, focused into mine in the last moments before it expired, and admiring, and skinning, that great brown bear gave me a real appreciation for the power, the pure dense muscle, giant claws and powerful jaws that they bring to any confrontation.

Without substantial firepower and enough room to wield it, we don't stand a chance against a bear's powerful weapons.

Those who have studied brown bears in the Southeast do agree that their population is up, this year just at a time when late salmon runs were down, and less snowfall has kept more of them not yet in hibernation.

No other animal in North America demands the respect these giants do. And it needs to be intelligent respect. They are neither murderous demons, nor cuddly teddy bears. They have to eat to survive.

Sometimes to eat, they kill.

More often, they'll seek out easy pickings, whether it's spawning salmon or a city garbage dump.

That's why so long as we share this part of Alaska, we have to find common sense ways to minimize conflicts between people and bears. And keep our house clean.

From a government stand point, that means eliminating the free handouts that turn normal bears into troublemaking freeloaders with no fear of humans.

It's still common knowledge that the best bear viewing sites in Southeast Alaska are not any salmon stream, but a couple of our community dump grounds.

Juneau has proven that common sense-and strict enforcement of garbage laws-can dramatically reduced bear-human conflicts in the capital city. Yet while Juneau's less troublesome black bears are finding fewer free meals, we still see dozens, if not hundreds, of bears in town each summer.

While garbage is something we can control, there are others, like a poor Coho run or a mild winter that keep bears hungry and not yet denned up, that we can not.

And short of leaving the country, our only other option is to be smart and constantly vigilant for bears. Which is really no option at all.

For myself, I'd far rather live in a land with giant bears. And know that I need to keep a sharp lookout. Than feel secure in woods that are emptier for their absence.

Leschper is general manager of the Capital City Weekly and advertising director of the Juneau Empire.E-mail him