Wildlife experts are urging Eagle River chicken owners to safeguard their backyard coops against bears now instead of shooting marauding bruins later.
Last year, at least two bears were killed in Eagle River after the animals tried to raid chicken coops.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game held a workshop last weekend at the Eagle River Nature Center to encourage the use of electric perimeter fencing as a deterrent for intrusive bears.
So far this year, there have been only a few reported bear sightings, but the bruins are expected to become more active by mid-April, said Eagle River Nature Center manager Laura Kruger.
And they will be attracted to the usual smells unsecured garbage, bird feeders, and now chicken coops, said Jessy Coltrane, wildlife biologist for Fish and Game, who lives in Eagle River.
Wildlife technician Tony Carnahan and education and outreach specialist Elizabeth Manning, both with Fish and Game, cited the rising popularity of keeping chickens throughout Anchorage and Eagle River. Imports of live chickens to Alaska increase by about 20 percent each year, according to the State Veterinarian's office, Manning said.
Most properties in Eagle River Valley are zoned to allow private coops, Coltrane said. While there is no definitive figure for how many Eagle River properties have chicken coops, Coltrane and staff at the Nature Center have received numerous calls from locals concerned with protecting their birds.
About 20 residents attended the presentation.
If managed properly, Coltrane said, those who want to keep chickens can do so without bear encounters.
"The solution is not to be shooting every bear that comes to get your chickens," she said. "You have to be more proactive."
Electric fences, she said, are the ideal deterrent for black and brown bears. The shock is powerful enough to send a clear message to stay away, but will not harm the animal long term.
During the April 3 workshop, Manning and Carnahan detailed the best ways to build electric perimeter fencing.
The fences typically pack a punch ranging from 5,000 to 7,000 volts, with the shocks administered in pulses, Carnahan said.
"They are not designed to maim or injure; all are just charges designated for livestock use," Carnahan said.
A bear will most likely touch a live fence with its nose or the pads of its paws, sensitive areas that will deter the animal from getting any closer, he added.
The materials needed to create an enclosure include fence posts, 14-gauge wire, a charger and suitable grounding wire, Carnahan said. Chargers administer the electrical current, and vary in size and capacity. These essential units should be waterproof or stored indoors, he said.
Options abound for perimeter fencing, but setting up a basic enclosure ranges from $150 to $200, he said.
Ideally, a fence should be no less than five feet tall, with electrified wires running about a foot apart. Fences can also be set at a 45-degree angle facing outward from the enclosure to ensure contact near the head of larger bears, where a shock on the paw alone may prove ineffective.
Manning recommended clearing surrounding vegetation from chicken coops to prevent those plants from creating a short circuit.
Innovation is key in outwitting a hungry bear, Carnahan said. Bears will often dig up, or damage buried cables, which supply power to the electric grid, he said.
To withstand curious bears, the livestock structures themselves should be reinforced, too, Manning said. Barricading doors, and installing window shutters that close flush to the exterior of the building can prevent bears from prying a coop open.
"Just tacking plywood over windows is not enough," she said.
Particularly when salmon are running, Eagle River acts as a corridor for bears roaming down from the mountainsides of Chugach State Park and nearby. State biologists estimate that about 250 to 350 black bear and more than 65 brown bears populate an area from Girdwood to the Knik River, but much of that territory is alpine highland and unsuitable for bears.
Kruger said she has been raising chickens for about a year. Although she has not yet had problems with bears attacking her livestock, she opted this year to install an electrified enclosure for her chicken coops out of an existing dog kennel on her O'Riedner Road property, she said.
At a cost of about $200, Kruger's six chickens are now safe from prowling bears. While she said she is content with her enclosure, she was intrigued by the different options highlighted at Sunday's presentation.
"It was definitely informative and cool to see other set-ups and know all the options out there," she said.
Eagle River resident Gregg Terry, an adjunct horticulture instructor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, recognized crossover potential in using electric fences to protect compost heaps. While not typically a target for browsing bears, compost that contains fish and meat byproducts could easily lure them in, Terry said. He recommended fast-acting, odor-reducing composts that do not use animal byproducts.
Carnahan encouraged residents raising livestock to be creative, and continue to improve their systems once they are in place.
"Curiosity is one thing you have to defend against, too," he said. "Sometimes you have to get creative and think the way the animal does."
For more information on electric fences, go to Fish and Game's Web site, www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=livingwithbears.bearfences.
This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, April 6, 2011.