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  Bear in Mind, Wildlife is Wild

Editorial / Kenai Peninsula Clarion / February 10, 2006

Wildlife and Alaska are synonymous, and Alaskans are good about taking care of our wildlife.

That's why when an issue comes up - aerial wolf hunting, moose numbers or salmon habitat - you'll always find people passionate about protecting the animals.

These are key issues in the interest of the state's reputation. But there's one more being added to the list of concerns: bears.

On the Kenai Peninsula, brown bears have been said to be dwindling in numbers. That is most evident each year when it comes to hunting season.

Two years ago, bear season was held after a two-year hiatus. However, hunters barely got a chance to dust off their rifles when two days into the season it was closed. There had been 228 permits issued with only nine bears left before the management area limit would be maxed.

Last fall the brown bear limit was hit early.

The latest word is that the Bush administration plans to look into whether Alaska's other well-known bear - the polar bear - is closing in on the endangered species list. They could become the first mammals to gain protected status as a result of climate change.

Environmentalists say we've created global warming, and now the bears' ice floes are shrinking, limiting their habitat.

It's hard to imagine in a state as large as Alaska that there is a limited habitat for anything. But there is. This is why certain areas are set up to protect nature and the creatures that roam through it.

Two years ago a drama unfolded in one of these areas.

For those of you with cable or satellite television, the Discovery Channel has been airing the documentary "The Grizzly Man," the story about Timothy Treadwell.

Treadwell, an advocate for grizzly bears, was killed in October 2003 by the animal he wanted to protect. He and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were killed near their campsite in Katmai National Park and Preserve. They had been mauled and devoured by a grizzly, the first known victims of a bear attack in the park. The bear suspected of the killings was later shot by park officials.

It's interesting to note Treadwell felt the bears needed to be protected in an area where they already were protected by the state. Yet in watching the film, Treadwell claims he is there to keep poachers away, something he says the state is ignoring.

Treadwell shot amazing scenes over his last four visits to the Alaska wilderness, including those where he reaches out to touch the creatures, standing mere feet away. The animals seem apprehensive, but curious.

He downplayed his encounters during appearances on national television shows. But the truth is, he crossed the line of nature. No matter how incredible it was to see him inches from the face of a grizzly, it was not an intelligent move.

Wildlife's greatest enemy is man. And no matter how cute and cuddly they may appear, they are wild and unpredictable.

People in the Lower 48 already have a problem with their perception of Alaskans. We are the people who want to drill for oil at all costs. We don't care about the environment - especially the wildlife.

Treadwell's obsession to protect the creatures he loved became his fatal flaw. His ignorant behavior perpetuates the image that people can be one with nature.

We can't. Nature is violent, prey-driven and hungry, and bear attacks happen often enough to remind us that we need to be prepared for an animal's wild side.

On the Kenai Peninsula, we had four attacks in 2005. Scott MacInnes and his dog stumbled across a moose kill last April. In July, a 15-year-old Boy Scout from Texas was mauled by a brown bear in Cooper Landing.

In September, Danielle Compton, 21, of Valley Springs, Calif., was on her way to work at the Kenai Princess Lodge in Cooper Landing when she spotted a brown bear between her and the lodge. The bear charged, knocked her to the ground, bit her once and dragged her a short distance before running off into the woods.

In October, Colleen Sinnott of Kasilof was hospitalized and her dog was lost after an attack by a 300- to 400-pound brown bear. Sinnott had her scalp torn off, three ribs broken and was bleeding from numerous punctures and scratches after she was mauled by the bear on a trail near Skilak Lake Loop Road. The dog was found, alive, 13 days later.

These are reminders that we have no control over these or any wild animals.

It won't be long before the bears will be coming out of their winter slumber, refreshed, but very hungry. Our best defense is common sense. Know how to act around them, be educated and prepared for encounters. The best way we can protect the bears is to protect ourselves.

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