Jessy Coltrane, the Anchorage-area wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, pulled her big white pickup onto Tudor Road and headed for one of the city's worst bear-problem neighborhoods: Muldoon.
The cab of her truck was packed with gun cases and rain gear. The bed held a dog kennel to haul moose calves and one very large net.
Each summer has a similar, chaotic tempo, she said. The bear calls begin in May. Then the moose start giving birth, and that goes on all of June while the bear calls keep ramping up. Mostly it's black bears scaring up trouble in neighborhoods. Occasionally, there's more serious trouble with a brown bear. The wildlife crescendo comes at the end of July and then things drop off once berry season starts and bears get more interested in blueberries than old pizza boxes, she said.
Coltrane pulled into a Muldoon neighborhood full of apartment buildings and duplexes pressed up against the wooded foothills of the Chugach Range. Photographer Bob Hallinen and I rode with her down a street that she's been called to dozens of times. It wasn't trash day, but it looked like it. There was trash everywhere.
"Garbage. Garbage. Garbage," Coltrane said, marking the houses with uncovered trash cans in their yards. "There's a bear proof dumpster! But it's open."
Coltrane became the city's area biologist in March after nine summers working with the former area biologist Rick Sinnott, who retired last year. Until an assistant is hired, she's the only Fish and Game person responsible for the entire city, helping guide citizens through human-animal encounters all summer. Coltrane's phone rings constantly with calls from the public and at all hours of the night with calls from city police and state troopers. She can't leave town until fall. She carries her emergency mauling pager at all times.
Before our drive, I watched her answer a call from a construction foreman wanting to remove a magpie nest from his site (he needs a federal permit), a Realtor wanting to know what to do about a moose giving birth on top of a buried septic tank that needs to be replaced (wait), and a person concerned about a bear in the Turnagain neighborhood (watch the trash).
In her spare time, Coltrane, 38, is finishing a Ph.D in porcupine physiology after years of fieldwork in Anchorage. She's an avid runner. Her desk was crowded with Diet Coke cans, coffee cups, baggies of clean syringes for taking baby moose blood and a couple dozen tranquilizer darts.
Coltrane grew up the daughter of an oil company pilot in Saudi Arabia, and went to boarding school in New Jersey and college in North Carolina and in Florida. Her dad taught her to shoot. She worked as a biologist in Central America and South America for about seven years before she moved to Alaska. Now she lives in Eagle River with her husband, a dog and a ferret named George Tater Salad.
She said she sees her job similar to how Sinnott saw his. She's here to try to manage the wildlife the city has, she said. Over the years, she and Sinnott made bear safety a major focus, but the work has been frustrating. Muldoon's a perfect example. A couple years ago, they helped administer a program that offered grants in Muldoon to help people get bear-resistant trash cans and dumpsters. They also targeted Stuckagain Heights with the same program. It was voluntary. Stuckagain had a high response rate, and bear calls from that area have gone way down. Muldoon, which has many more low-income and transient residents, didn't have as many volunteers. So now the majority of the cans are uncovered.
For every bear-resistant can sitting in a driveway in Muldoon, we saw three more belching bags of trash. Many didn't even appear to have lids. For every tidy dumpster outside a fourplex, there were two more ringed in fast-food bags.
"This whole area is like a giant bait bucket," Coltrane said.
There are two enforcement tools for Coltrane to use to try to persuade people to cover their trash. There's a city ordinance that says trash can't be placed outside until the morning of trash day. She can call the city code enforcement office, and it'll write a ticket. Or, if a can is actually attracting bears or other large animals, she can write a ticket for negligent feeding. The fine is $310.
She'd like a city ordinance like Juneau has, which has significantly reduced the number of bear problems in the city. In Juneau, the city can fine you if you put your trash out the night before trash day without using a bear-resistant can. In Anchorage, anyone in the Alaska Waste service area can get a can for an extra $3 a month. Solid Waste Service, which serves the most urban part of the city, doesn't offer the cans.
A survey last year showed that the majority of residents supported having a municipal garbage ordinance. It also said that a majority of people appreciate co-existing with wildlife in the city, she said.
An ordinance struck me as a really simple solution. But, Coltrane said, there isn't the will among politicians. And, even if it got going, there would be resistance from the public too. So many problems with bears are human-caused, but people don't like to change their behavior, she said. It's the essential conflict she deals with every day. Too often it ends with dead bears. "It's personal responsibility," she said. "People need to take responsibility for their area and clean it up."
We drove up Stuckagain Heights Road and through a couple of neighborhoods where bear-proof cans sat in most of the driveways. Coltrane pointed out piles of bear scat and a big tree missing a patch of bark from where bears climbed it. On the way back down, we stopped to look at a moose and two calves trotting on spindly legs under the birch trees. We didn't see a bear.
When I got back to the office a friend had posted a picture from that morning on Facebook. It was taken in his driveway farther south on the Hillside. There sat a black bear next to his open trash can. The bungie cords had been torn from the lid. The bear's mouth was stuffed with food wrappers.
Readers: Does Anchorage need a tougher ordinance to discourage people from leaving garbage outside and attracting bears?