Bear in mind pet safety

Posted: Sunday, April 24, 2005


  A hiker takes notice of a young brown bear on the Kenai River last fall. As the human population on the Peninsula grows and encroaches into the habitat of wild animlas, it increases the potential for interactions with wildlife. Photo by Joseph Robertia

A hiker takes notice of a young brown bear on the Kenai River last fall. As the human population on the Peninsula grows and encroaches into the habitat of wild animlas, it increases the potential for interactions with wildlife.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

As the human population on the Kenai Peninsula continues to grow and encroach into the habitat of wild animals, it no doubt increases the potential for interactions with pets and wildlife, but there is a simple solution — keep pets under control.

As of yet, there has been no evidence to suggest that the golden retriever owned by Scott MacInnes — the Soldotna man mauled by a brown bear while on a jog near Mackey Lake earlier this week — prompted the attack.

It does bring to light a bit of reality for the people and their pets who call the Kenai Peninsula their home.

"We live in bear country, and they can be anywhere, anyplace, anytime," said Jeff Selinger, Alaska Department of Fish and Game area manager .

As such, he recommends that people think of bear safety wherever they are — whether hiking a new backcountry trail with a canine companion or just jogging with them through a neighborhood or other familiar area.

Selinger said it makes sense to know where bears are likely to be based on their seasonal movements in response to available food.

In spring, there are two things to keep in mind. The first is that sows are emerging from their dens with cubs and, in protecting them, can be very aggressive to humans, dogs or anything else they feel is threatening their offspring.

The second is that this time of year, bears are looking for any food source they can find.

"Human food, animal food, bird seed, suet or garbage left out or stored in a careless manner — they'll be attracted to anything that looks, smells or feels like food," Selinger said.

Bear scat collected in the area where MacInnes was attacked yielded almonds and other nuts, as well as a type of commercial oat, leading Fish and Game to wonder about the source of these food items.

This search by bears for food can mean wild menu items.

"Carrion is a big bonus for them at this time of year," Selinger said

He explained that moose and other animals still in a weakened condition from winter that are preyed upon, as well as the remains of animals that died during the winter, are important food sources for hungry bruins.

They will actively protect these carcasses, charging anything — human or animal — that ventures near. So far as Fish and Game can tell, this appears to have been the case in the MacInnes incident.

Although these are important considerations for being outdoors with pets in April, Selinger said people shouldn't be any less vigilant the rest of the year in regard to bear safety.

"Late May and early June is when the bear mating season begins," Selinger said.

He said people should be aware that when one bear is spotted, another may be somewhere nearby, so be aware of the surroundings and remain cautious when moving away from the first bear so as not to bump into a second one.

In June, July and August, bears attracted by spawning salmon will make seasonal movements to rivers and tributaries.

As summer shifts to fall, bears may move from one resource to another, such as from low-country salmon streams to high-country berry patches. They also may be once again drawn to game carcasses or gut piles left behind from hunters.

Regardless of the season, Selinger encourages everyone to be responsible 12 months out of the year and to stick to the basics for preventing conflict and confrontations between bears and humans and their pets.

"It's good advice to keep dogs in sight at all times, whether it be on a leash or under control with voice commands if they've been through obedience training," Selinger said.

Allowing dogs to run free while hiking or jogging not only is dangerous for them, but can be dangerous for their owners, as well, since if they get into trouble with a bear they may run back with it hot on their heels.

Loose dogs may bring back stomping ungulates as moose and caribou began to calve next month, and dogs pose a very real threat to calves, themselves.

"Wild dogs can play a major role in the calf mortality of the lowland caribou herd and the moose in this area," Selinger said.

Keeping dogs on a leash doesn't mean totally restricting their fun and exercise, through. Long leashes, 30 to 40 feet, that are retractable can be used to allow dogs a bit more freedom than a typical leash in sections that are open and with good visibility.

If hiking through tight terrain with lots of blind switchbacks or where vegetation makes it hard to see, keep pets on leashes reeled in close.

Also, if on an extended trip where either the pet owner or the dog is packing dog food, treat it the same as if it were human food — don't leave it accessible to bears.

Feed dogs 100 yards away from where the campsite will be for the evening, and "bear bag" the dog food by hanging it in a tree in the same manner human food gets stored on overnight camping trips.

"People should always bring bear spray, whether jogging or hiking," Selinger added. Many sprays have recently been designed with ergonomic carrying straps and holsters so as to not be cumbersome to active users.

Fastening bells to the collar of a dog can alert wildlife to a pet's presence while outdoors, giving bears and other animals time to move off, thus avoiding an interaction.

"It is a good idea not to jog or hike in headphones. As enjoyable as it is, not wearing them can give you a little more awareness about your surroundings," Selinger said.

Staying aware of the surroundings can include reading a pet's behavior, since they may hear, smell or see a bear before their owner.

Also, look and listen for clues from other wildlife, such as fresh tracks or scat on the trail from bears, claw marks on trees and downed deadfall, or half eaten-salmon carcasses in summer.

"Looking and listening for large gatherings of birds can also mean that there is a carcasses or bulk food source nearby that a bear could also be present at," Selinger said.

Also, as is the golden rule for taking a pet anywhere, make sure all dogs have the proper tags and identification in the event they get separated, such as in an unexpected event like a brush with a bear that could send dogs, if off the leash, scurrying in a different direction than their owner.

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