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Bears Mobbing the Russian River?  It Just ain't Natural

Craig Medred / Outdoors / Anchorage Daily News / August 14, 2005

Trying to sort out what is worst about the mess with bears on the Russian River is not easy.

First there is the matter of the grizzly sow gut-shot and left to die. Whether you love bears or hate them -- and there are Alaskans with both views -- this is wrong. All that separates us from the rest of the animals is that thing we call humanity, and humanity hinges on treating each other, and the other animals, with some degree of respect.

Thus, when legitimate hunters shoot animals, they try to ensure the animals die as quickly and painlessly as possible. If a grizzly rips another bear's gut open and leaves it to die, that's one thing. Bears do that. But if a human shoots a hole in a bear's gut and leaves it to wander off and die, that's despicable.

Not just because it violates our fundamental rules of behavior toward animals, either. But because -- on top of that -- it puts other people at risk. Wounded grizzly bears have a nasty habit of going out fighting. Leaving a wounded grizzly roaming an area as popular as the Russian is a little like planting a land mine.

Even if the shooter wounded the bear in legitimate defense of life and property (sure to be the defense of the scoundrel who killed the sow), there is an obligation to report that shooting to authorities as quickly as possible and to ensure that measures are taken to finish the bear and make the area safe.

All of which brings the discussion to Russian River safety and the idea, now popular in some circles, that it is somehow cute to have grizzly bears roaming the middle of the most popular salmon fishery in the state.

Listen up, people. These are grizzly bears. They really don't have to do much to rip someone's face off -- as one did two years ago to a young angler who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time along the banks of the Russian. Call that a "bad bear."

By most accounts, the sow gut-shot this year was a "good bear.'' But even a good bear can have a bad day, and you don't want to be around when a grizzly has a bad day.

Not to mention that this whole "good bear/bad bear" notion is nothing but poppycock. People are confusing a human value (i.e., "good'') with animal behaviors (i.e., "tolerant''). Because a lot of people -- Alaskans and tourists alike -- enjoy watching bears behaving peacefully, a human-tolerant sow is a "good bear."

This is a dangerous trail down which to wander. The humanization of wild animals in this manner easily spirals out of control. As a colleague sarcastically put it last week:

"The sow loved people, Craig. She used to lie down next to toddlers waiting for their parents to finish fishing. They would snuggle up. I think she once pulled a young boy from the river by his shirt collar, saving him from drowning. I also heard she ran for help when there was a fender-bender on the Sterling Highway, snapping her jaws and woofing at the Alaska state trooper to get his attention and then led him to the accident scene.''

Sadly, that mocking description of Lassie-like behavior isn't all that far from what some people thought of the now-dead sow. More than a few fired off e-mails to lambast the idiot bear-shooter and display their photographs of the beloved grizzly. In some of the photos, the bear has red eyes from a camera flash going off in her face at 20 or 30 feet.

What is someone thinking when they pop a flash in a bear's face at that distance?

Given that the sow didn't react violently to this or most other stupid human tricks certainly earned her an "A'' for tolerance. But if you've spent your life around bears, you also have to wonder how long that could have gone on before the bear finally roughed someone up.

To that, some of the bear viewers who have joined anglers on the Russian River in recent years would simply say "so what.'' They are content to dismiss the public safety issue with the observation that "the bears were here first.''

This is as true as it is wrongheaded.

Yes, the archaeological record indicates there were bears in Alaska before there were people, but the lower Russian River has been inhabited by people for thousands of years. Before there were anglers, there were encampments of Natives who came to catch, kill and store fish to keep their families alive through the winter.

We don't know for sure how much they harassed bears along the lower river, but you can be confident of this: When survival depends upon preserving a supply of salmon to feed yourself and your family through the winter, you cannot afford to tolerate fish-eating bears. And it is clear that early Alaska Natives, who were obviously a lot braver than you or me, weren't afraid to go after grizzly bears with spears if it served their purposes.

In ancient times, bears certainly wandered along the Russian River, but it's doubtful they took up residence. And by the 20th century, they were probably only passing visitors for a couple of different reasons. For one, the lower Russian isn't a very good place for fishing, at least if you're a bear. For another, early white folk in Alaska continued the persecution of bears begun by their ancestors in the Lower 48 a century before.

So if you were a smart bear, you avoided the lower Russian, and if you were a stupid bear, you got killed. This was pretty much the situation until well into the 1990s. It changed only as human behavior along the river changed.

When I first started fishing the Russian seriously in the early 1980s, bears were rare and so were the salmon-carcass dumps that attract bears today. It's hard to pinpoint exactly when the dumps began to appear, but that change can probably be linked to a couple of decades of nature's bounty and man's science.

Part of what happened on the Russian is that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, through careful fisheries management, significantly boosted the return of red salmon. Consider this:

In the almost 20 years prior to 1978, there wasn't a year the escapement of late-run reds -- the larger of the two red runs -- topped 55,000. Since 1997, there hasn't been a year when escapement fell below 55,000. In the past 15 years, in fact, escapements dropped below 55,000 only once.

That was in 1996. Only 37,000 fish got past anglers that year. Everyone thought it was a disaster. And never mind that it was within a few hundred fish of the average annual escapement for the 20 years from 1960 to 1980.

Is it any wonder we now have more bears than anyone can remember using the lower Russian? There are twice as many fish in the river as in the old days, and the stream-side fish-cleaning tables built by the U.S. Forest encouraged anglers to create bear-friendly carcass dumps.

The only thing funny about this is that the bear watchers who now come to the river somehow think the appearance of bears is natural.

It is every bit as natural as the appearance of grizzlies at the dumps in Yellowstone National Park before those facilities were shut down.

Where bears appear naturally at the Russian River is up at the falls, which is where bears can catch live salmon as opposed to picking up carcasses.

The Forest Service built a very nice, elevated platform for bear viewing at the falls. Unfortunately, the bear viewing opportunities are probably being hurt by the fact some bears have decided that it's easier to wade around in the lower river picking up carcasses loaded with salmon eggs than to go to the trouble of trying to catch live fish.

Now we have sows that think this way teaching their young the lower river is the place to go for salmon. All this is doing is growing the problem. Bears are smart creatures. The cubs that dine on carcasses today will remember and bring their cubs tomorrow.

If you're a sow grizzly, this probably even appears wise. Grizzly boars, which sometimes attack and kill cubs, are the bears least comfortable around humans. The now-dead sow could have cozied up to people thinking they offered some degree of protection.

Now she's dead. Everyone is wringing their hands over that. And land managers have once again put a Band-Aid on the problem in the form of a nighttime closure to fishing on the river.

Such a closure no doubt minimizes the chance anyone will get hurt by a bear this year, but it certainly doesn't solve the problem. It could actually make it worse. But that's a subject for another column.

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

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