Problem bears will get makeovers to avoid trouble at Russian River

Posted: Friday, May 18, 2007

 

  A young brown bear scratches an itch while sitting in a patch of wild germaniums alongside the Russian River last summer. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is going to try several different techniques this year to manage interaction between bears and people at the popular fishing stream. Photo by M. Scott Moon

A young brown bear scratches an itch while sitting in a patch of wild germaniums alongside the Russian River last summer. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is going to try several different techniques this year to manage interaction between bears and people at the popular fishing stream.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Unless it’s rifling through your backpack or charging at you on the trail, it’s hard to identify a “problem” brown bear from any other one. A plan to mark troublemakers with some bright new colors may make the task easier this summer in the Russian River area.

With a man being mauled nearly to death in 2003, a half dozen bears shot illegally or in defense of life since and hundreds of nuisance bear calls fielded annually, wildlife authorities are hoping to head off problems between bruins and humans before they start.

“We’re continually working on the best way to manage the area,” said Jeff Selinger, area wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Soldotna.

Fish and Game was recently involved in a meeting between the U.S. Forest Service, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and other agencies involved in the management of this area. As a result, Selinger said several news techniques will be employed this year, including one that will be challenging for wildlife authorities, given the terrain and high numbers of people who frequent this popular spot.

“We’re going to attempt to capture and mark at least four bears that have frequented the area in years past if they show up again,” he said.

These bears will be chemically immobilized from the ground, marked and/or ear tagged, and Fish and Game will attempt to bleach patches of hair on the bear’s body and then brightly color them with dye for easy identification.

“We’ll use specific color codes to tell the bears apart and we may do two areas, such as the head and neck and also the rear, so bears can be identified coming and going,” he said.

Selinger said this is not an attempt to deface bears but to make some bears identifiable with the obvious markings so wildlife officials can learn which bears are doing what, and when.

The bright colors will allow fisherman, tourists, campers, ferry service employees and others in the area to easily and reliably identify the bears even in low-light conditions, such as at dawn and dusk when numerous fishermen still line the banks of the river despite the dangers of doing so.

“We want to start to have a known history for the bears, so that we can track which ones walk away when confronted by people and which ones demonstrate escalating behaviors,” he said.

Stealing fish on stringers, backpacks with food on the river’s edge and coolers left unattended in a campground with increased frequency is an example of escalating behavior. This behavior often increases as a bear loses its fear of humans, and a bear that doesn’t fear humans isn’t long for this world.

That’s part of the reasoning behind the color-code system, according to Selinger. When a bear gets too brazen and the decision is made to euthanize the animal for public safety, Fish and Game is called while an incident is in progress.

“But by the time we can drive up there, it may be 45 minutes or an hour later. The bear may have moved off by then and we’ll have to go and look for it. But if we’re going up there to put a bear down, we want to be sure it’s the correct one,” he said.

In addition to the bear identification plan, Selinger said the “Stop, Chop and Throw” campaign will be promoted again this year. This technique is employed as a way of eliminating carcasses by having fishermen cut them into small chunks that drift away easier than whole carcasses, and by throwing these chucks into the center of the river, where they are most likely to be swept downstream and into deep water beyond the reach of bears.

To aid fishermen in this effort, Selinger said chopper/grinders will be available in the Russian River area for the first time.

“We’ll have them in a few key locations to try them out and see how they work and if people are using them,” he said.

Selinger said choppers/grinders are tentatively planned at the bottom of the stairs that lead down from the Grayling parking area, at the first gravel bar upstream from the confluence of the Russian and Kenai rivers, one at the confluence of the two rivers and one at the ferry terminal.

“The forest service will also have two federal protection officers in the area this year. They’ll be spreading the word about bear safety, recording any incidents as they happen and, when necessary, writing citations for those that don’t comply,” Selinger said.

Hide and seeking ideas

Several strategies will be implemented this summer to decrease problem brown bear behavior in the Russian River area:

· Dyeing patches of bear’s hides to make them more visible and recognizable.

· Stop, Chop and Throw program to encourage fishermen to chop up fish waste and throw it in the river.

· Federal protection officers will be stationed in the area.

Joseph Robertia can be reached at joseph.robertia@peninsulaclarion.com.



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