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Fishery to Blame, Bear Expert Says

Craig Medred / Anchorage Daily News / August 5, 2005

As bear lovers mourned Thursday and federal wildlife investigators continued a search for the individual who gut-shot a grizzly sow that later died along the Russian River, the state of Alaska's top bear man said that none of it need to have happened.

The ever-worsening situation on the Russian has been years in the making. It has made confrontations between bears and people there almost inevitable, said Sean Farley, the chief bear biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

"What we've done is create an artificial food source,'' Farley said. "The fish-cleaning stations are creating a problem. I know I'm going to get in trouble for saying that. (But) it's a very strange, bureaucratic, Byzantine mess.''

Piles of nutrient-rich carcasses left behind by thousands of anglers who filet their red salmon along the Russian each summer are luring bears into an area where they would not normally congregate, he said.

"That's a place where bears wouldn't normally be able to get fish,'' Farley said.

Man-made salmon-carcass dumps, however, changed the dynamic. Kenai area wildlife biologist Jeff Selinger now estimates there are between eight and 12 bears, both black and grizzly, sows and cubs, and at least one large grizzly boar, hanging out along the lower river.

Deb Cooper, the Seward District ranger for the U.S. Forest Service, said she is aware of how attractive carcasses have become to those bears and actually had volunteers out in the river this week shoveling viscera into the current so it would flush downstream.

The Forest Service's salmon-cleaning tables, she added, were originally placed along the river to solve the problem of people cleaning fish in the campground or on gravel bars where rotting carcasses were even more attractive to bears.

Obviously, she added, given what has happened since she went to work in Seward two years ago, more consideration has to be given to what is done with fish waste along the river.

As it stands now, the carcass-induced convergence of human life and wildlife is resulting in death for bears and near-death for people.

Two years ago, a sow grizzly was shot by a fearful angler and her cubs subsequently put down. Not long after, another sow grizzly with cubs attacked angler Daniel Bigley and bit him in the face. He survived but was left blind.

This year, the death of yet another sow grizzly has left three yearling cubs motherless. Officials are still worrying over those animals. Hopefully, Selinger said, they'll stay away from people and avoid becoming a problem.

But it is possible, he said, they might need to be tranquilized and relocated or killed. The latter could become necessary if the bears prove aggressive.

Anglers, photographers and others who saw the bear family before the sow was killed describe one of the cubs as significantly less fearful of people than the other two, and added that the sow seemed to be struggling to keep all three under control.

"All the time that I was down there, the mom has never acted aggressive,'' said Leonard Dunn of Anchorage. "She didn't get anywhere near me. It was the cub that came up on the (fishing) deck.''

There were repeated reports of one cub getting into backpacks left along the river, snatching stringers of fish from anglers, and otherwise targeting people as indicators of food.

None of the bears ever fished, added Dunn.

"All these times I've seen the bears,'' he said, "not once have I seen them catch a fish. Carcasses, that's all they've caught.''

Selinger said he's not convinced the carcasses, often rich with salmon eggs or milt, are the only attraction that keeps bears hanging around -- food snatched from people's backpacks and stringers of salmon taken away from frightened anglers are also attractive -- but the carcasses certainly would cause any bear passing through to linger.

Because of concerns about lingering bears, officials of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, which manages the land on the west bank of the Russian, and the Chugach National Forest, which manages the land on the east bank, are preparing to temporarily close the river corridor to human use from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m.

That is the same action taken in 2003 after Bigley was attacked. Deputy refuge manager Jim Hall said the closure is not a perfect solution, but he notes that it safely solved bear-human conflicts two years ago.

"We do recognize that we're going to have to do something long term,'' he said.

Much the same was said after Bigley was attacked, but little happened.

"Actions need to finally be taken, rather than just having meetings and writing memos,'' said Tom Vania, regional sportfisheries manager for Fish and Game. "The Division of Sport Fish doesn't believe a nighttime closure is the solution to this problem.''

Some biologists have argued a nightly closure could make the situation worse by encouraging more bears to take up residence along the lower river. Selinger doesn't think that's going to happen but concedes there is some possibility.

"I think there was some good intentions two years ago,'' he added, "and what basically came out of that was to do some education work. It may have helped.''

Anglers who have spent time on the river this summer might disagree.

"People are idiots,'' said James Wright, who reported watching anglers who refused to stop fishing even though a bear had moved within feet of them and others who left backpacks on beaches for bears to investigate.

Too many people know too little about how to behave around bears, added 70-year-old Dean Cornett of Cooper Landing, and there is usually no one on the river to explain to them how to behave.

"There's no oversight or (regulatory) supervision or enforcement there,'' he said. "I feel very depressed about the whole thing.''

A self-confessed bear lover, Cornett has put up a $5,000 reward for the arrest of the individual accused of shooting the sow Sunday, and said Tuesday that friends and neighbors in the Cooper Landing area have contributed another $3,000 toward the reward fund.

Everyone seems to agree that the shooter should be found and prosecuted to the full extent of the law -- even Wright, a 15-year veteran of the Russian who says the dead sow wasn't quite the perfectly behaved bear some are now making her out to be.

Wright and his 10-year-old son were charged by the sow as they tried to retreat from the river in June after one of the cubs stepped out of the woods onto a nearby gravel bar.

"The cub beside me bawled when it saw me,'' Wright said. "She started to come toward me fast. When I pulled the gun, and said, 'Don't do it,' she stopped. I've never seen a bear do that before.''

Even so, he figured then that if the sow kept bluff-charging people it was only a matter of time until she was shot. He's hoping there's a better outcome for another grizzly sow with two young cubs still using the area.

"That other sow down there, she's savvy,'' he said. "She has two small cubs, and if she sees you, she just goes.''

Daily News Outdoors editor Craig Medred can be reached at cmedred@adn.com .

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