By Gretchen Wehmhoff
Skagway Police Department (SPD) reports calls regarding bears in town, in trash and in the way have increased since last year. In 2022 SPD logged 57 bear calls and as of Oct. 19 they counted 86.
Over the past month, complaints of overturned dumpsters, trash strewn along town and on trails has kept police busy. Citations have been issued.
Chief J.J. Reddick reported to the assembly that officers are chasing and hazing bears throughout the night.
“They’re hazing them with either paintball rounds, rubber rounds, the shotgun, chasing them with cars. They’ve [the bears] got to where they know us and his car so well that they run when they see him. So sirens, horns – we run her off and she comes right back,” Reddick said.
Reddick is referring to a sow brown bear and her two cubs who have become regulars in Skagway – primarily foraging for garbage. He says that if the lids to dumpsters aren’t chained down, she flips the container and the doors open. One was chained down and she was able to break the chains.
“She’s big and powerful.”
SPD says this bear, who has had multiple sets of cubs, has been around Skagway since 2020.
Sgt. Ken Cox has had to dispatch a black bear in the past after she released her cubs. One cub, a blonde bear, sometimes referred to as a “spirit” bear was relocated afterwards to an area between Skagway and Haines.
“It’s tough,” he says.
“You almost develop a relationship with the bear when you are chasing it around the valley all of the time,” Cox said.
At one point he was chasing the brown bear family and the mama bear was on the hill calling for her cubs.
“And then the cubs come out. And they’re right in front of me. They’re right in front of my car. Right in my headlights. They’re so cute. It’s a really hard thought process to go through when you know this animal is probably not going to survive this,” he said.
SPD works with the National Park Service, Alaska Fish & Game (AF&G) and local hunters when a bear is shot as a safety issue. Local hunters will often help skin the animal as the hide is required to be submitted to AF&G.
At the Oct. 19 Borough Assembly meeting, discussion centered around plans for the future, the merits of bear proof trash cans, hiring community service officers and encouraging residents to take more action with electric fences and waiting until after 4:30 a.m. to put out trash on trash day.
Assemblymember Orion Hanson brought up the future of the bear being dispatched as inevitable.
Assemblymember Deb Potter added that an AF&G wildlife biologist working with Skagway noted that “when you do have to dispatch a bear for safety reasons, it’s just it’s going to be replaced by other bears the following year.”
Officer James Michaels told the assembly that the sow had bluff charged him and also took a swing at a minivan that surprised her.
“She’s kind of escalating her behavior,” Michaels said.
Cox said he and Michaels will be patrolling the streets on Halloween to make sure that trick-or-treaters and families can safely get around and enjoy the night.
“The last call we got was when a bear was up on the Lower Dewey Lake Trail. So I guess our big hope is that she and the cubs are heading up to hibernate. We don’t know for sure what she’s doing and she roams all over the place from one part of the valley to the next,” said Cox.