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Bears on the Losing End: Bruins Aren't the Cause of Problems; Human Beings to Blame

Voices of the Clarion / Joseph Robertia / Peninsula Clarion / July 20, 2008

I've got an idea for a new tourism slogan. "Come to Alaska, where wildlife abounds, including wolves with embedded snares dangling from their necks, swans run over by a personal watercraft, and gut-shot bears that can be tormented until their final breath by people throwing rocks."

If it sounds pathetic, its because it is, yet all these incidents are true and happened in-state, with the most latter incident occurring locally last month off of Mackey Lake Road in Soldotna.

Conflicts between humans and animals -- particularly animals that can harm us, such as bears -- is nothing new. Take for example the California grizzly bear, an animal that as a result of westward expansion by white settlers and gold miners passed into extinction with little fanfare when the last bruin was shot in 1922.

These bears -- in an eerie similarity to modern times -- were killed because they were seen as a dangerous threat to human life and property, and their death symbolized proof of modern progress and industrial productivity. Now the only place to see the California grizzly is on the state flag and seal, state buildings and monuments.

A pity.

More pitiful is that Alaska may well be on the same path.

We still have brown bears, but not because we are such good stewards of our wildlife, rather it is because were running several decades behind the Lower 48 in regard to large-scale human expansion into the wildlands, and subsequently behind in the decimation of wildlife that seems to accompany it.

Our actions and attitudes related to relations with wildlife, particularly bears, are equally antiquated, and one need only look as far as the Russian River to see this is true.

Annually sportfishermen with $50,000 SUVs pull into the area, with their $500 G. Loomis rods in hand, wearing several hundred dollars more in waders, flyfishing vests and other gear. Many come, so they claim, to catch fish to feed their hungry families, rather than suffering the expenses of shopping at a grocery store. However, every year "problem" bears attempting to feed themselves in order to survive get in the way.

Sadly, some have argued in the pages of the Clarion, that "clearing the Russian River fishery of the 'problem' bears is the only solution. Letting these bears continue to learn bad habits will only worsen the situation. The sooner these bears are gone, the better."

But what are the "bad habits" that cause these "problem" bears? The lackadaisical leaving of fish carcasses, stringers and backpacks of food along the riverbanks -- not to ignore how many coolers of food are left out and campfires that have had bacon grease poured into them in the campgrounds -- from the very anglers who complain about the bruins.

Several agencies, organizations and volunteers have gone out of their way to show this connection between attractants and bear problems and to dissuade fishermen from these practices. They have implemented a wide spread "Stop, Chop and Throw" campaign to educate anglers, yet go to the river any day of the week and look at how many piles of pink flesh line the banks.

To be fair, some anglers have acknowledged this, but attempt to explain it by saying "when all the angler education is done, there are always some who either don't get the message or choose to ignore it."

Then really isn't it clear who the real "problem" is? It's the fishermen who refuse to dispose of fish carcasses properly and who won't adhere to other safety procedures, not the bruins naturally attracted to an easily accessible food source.

These individuals are the ones who should be targeted for removal or punishment, and this shaping of behavior should come first from other responsible anglers. It's common for a fisherman attempting to keep a snagged fish at the Russian River to be reprimanded by other anglers on the water, and this same sense of self-governing by fishermen should be extended to those not displaying safe practices in bear country.

If this doesn't address the situation, responsible fishermen should still lead the charge by contacting the proper authorities, such as the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. If anglers championed for stricter laws related to people leaving carcasses, with the same zeal they called demanding "problem" bears be killed, it wouldn't be long until the problem was corrected.

An angler may blow off properly disposing of a carcasses because a sign advised it or another fishermen said so, but would so many do it if they knew if caught they would receive a fine of several hundred dollars and have to forfeit all of their fish, and fishing gear and tackle?

Until this type of change occurs, bears will continue to be drawn to this area. A few people may be mauled, or worse, but it will be bruins that continue to bear the brunt of human ignorance. And if nothing changes, then perhaps one day, like California, the only place to see an Alaska brown bear will be on the state quarter.

Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Clarion and can be reached at joseph.robertia@peninsulaclarion.com.

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