Bears make big news

An Outdoor View

Posted: Friday, January 02, 2004

Editor's note:This is the last of three columns about significant outdoor-related developments in 2003.

Though bear maulings are rare on the Kenai Peninsula, two occurred in 2003.

Kasilof resident Cody Williams, 17, was mauled by a sow brown bear near Tustumena Lake on May 11, while hunting black bear. According to the Clarion, 42 staples were required to close his head wounds. He also suffered deep puncture wounds to his legs and left arm.

Near midnight on July 14, Girdwood resident Dan Bigley, 25, was mauled by a sow brown bear at the Russian River, near Cooper Landing. He and a friend were returning to the U.S. Forest Service parking lot after fishing for sockeye salmon when Bigley was attacked. The bear reportedly was accompanied by two or three small cubs. Bigley lost his eyesight as a result of his injuries.

What was learned as a result of these maulings?

Williams learned that it's hard to outrun a grizzly bear. Speaking of the sow that mauled him, in a Clarion interview he said, "She left me with a lot more respect for their speed, size and strength."

In Bigley's case, witnesses and investigators alike said it was just a matter of his being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Bigley's mauling turned out to be just part of the story at the lower Russian River. For some reason, an unusual number of bears mostly sows with cubs showed up in July. Some of the cubs, like delinquent teens, roamed the river bank, looking for food. They found it in anglers' coolers and in the water, on fish stringers.

To prevent another mauling, the agencies with authority over the popular fishing area took action. On July 16, the Department of Fish and Game issued an emergency order temporarily closing fishing on the lower Russian and the Kenai from its confluence with the Russian, downstream to the power line, from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m.. The U.S. Forest Service temporarily closed the trails along the rivers during the same hours.

Agency personnel began patrolling the river banks, educating anglers and hazing aggressive cubs away with cracker shells and rubber bullets. These efforts improved the situation. Cubs that had been raiding coolers and stealing fish stopped causing problems.

I thought the nighttime closure was a great idea. In my column of July 25, I wrote: "The nighttime closure of the Russian River area should be permanent. In time, bears would learn that the area is theirs at night. The number of bear-human encounters would be minimized. I think people who study this issue will support a permanent nighttime closure.

"Yes, it would be a loss of fishing opportunity. But the improved protection for both humans and bears is worth far more than a few hours of fishing time. In that both 'user groups' would benefit, it would be a win-win deal."

But the closure didn't achieve universal popularity. A couple of days later, Palmer hunting guide Rod Arno called and said he had just read about my idea to "surrender the Russian River to the bears."

I had no sooner hung up from Arno's rant when I received an e-mail from Craig Medred, the outdoor editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He wrote: "If we allow the lower Russian River to revert to a grizzly bear feeding area, who gets to be the one to go down at 6 a.m. and kick the bears out? You volunteering?"

To Medred, the nighttime closure made no sense. It would only encourage more bears to come to the area. Discouraging bears from using the area would make it safer, he opined.

He theorized that the angler effort on the lower Russian had decreased in recent years, which may have led brown bears to think they could move in. "When have you ever heard of 13 bears being visible in the confluence area from the ferry crossing?" he asked. He had never seen this happen, not in "20-some" years of observing the Russian River, he said.

I told him "the handwringers among us won't tolerate very many of us being mauled while walking to the parking lot. Nor will the dreaded environmentalist wackos sit still while we shoot sows and euthanize their cubs."

I asked him for his solution. I said, "Mine is simple: In low-light conditions, avoid streams where salmon are spawning. I don't mind a little fear in my fishing, but walking near grizzlies in the dark is my idea of a really ugly way to commit suicide."

He wrote back, citing Fish and Game statistics that showed decreased angler effort. "Leave it the hell alone," he wrote. "If people want to fish at night, let them fish at night. We don't need the government in the business of protecting us from risk."

Early this week, I asked Jim Hall, deputy manager of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, and Larry Lewis, assistant area wildlife manager with the Department of Fish and Game, if they had received any complaints about the nighttime closure. Hall said he hadn't heard any. Lewis said "a couple" of residents complained, but had willingly left the area. They both said anglers had cooperated willingly, even eagerly, when asked to leave the area at night.

The three agencies involved Alaska Department of Fish and Game, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service plan to meet this month and discuss possible options for the Russian this year.

My take on the outcome of this meeting: They'll arrive at a consensus to continue educating anglers about bears and to repeat the 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. trail and fishing closures.

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Les Palmer is a freelance writer who lives in Sterling.

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