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Learning the bear necessities

Posted: Friday, May 24, 2002

Standing in a remote location somewhere on the Kenai Peninsula, I see a black bear about 50 feet away. Suddenly, the animal begins to rush at me. With just a few moments to spare, I pump the breach-loading mechanism on the 12-gauge shotgun I'm carrying.

Closer.

I lift the weapon until the butt of the gun is pressed firmly against my right shoulder and release the safety.

Closer.

No time to really take aim, I point the barrel in the animal's general direction, and then just a little ahead.

Closer.

I squeeze the trigger and a 12-gauge slug explodes from the chamber. I can only guess where it landed, because before I can ready the gun for another shot, the bear is on me.

Unfortunately, this was my first time in this type of situation, and honestly, my first time ever firing a shotgun. Fortunately, however, this was a simulation set up by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to train its area wildlife specialists on how to react to hostile bruins in the field.

"We want to make sure they know what they're doing so they're safe," said Fish and Game wildlife technician Larry Lewis last week at the Snowshoe Gun Club in Kenai.

The "bear" I shot at was a target photo stapled to a wooden sled, which was pulled toward me at the end of 50 feet of rope by an all-terrain vehicle. My performance was rudimentary, at best, and I actually had to think through my motions before executing them. So in the few seconds I had to react, I only got off the one shot.

I can't speak for everyone who was out there with me that Thursday afternoon, but I saw some fluid, three-shot, kill-zone performances and some that were barely better than my own. The idea, Lewis said, was to get Fish and Game staff comfortable enough with firing a weapon that there is no thought process, when the time to act arises.

Lewis established this training program with area biologist Ted Spraker several years ago. Spraker said the annual training is mandatory, with the focus on learning to use appropriate weapons under difficult circumstances.

"It makes their working environment safer and it reduces their chance of having a bad experience with a bear," he said.

When Fish and Game specialists go into the field -- whether to count caribou, track moose or survey salmon -- they put themselves at risk of bear encounters. Spraker said weapons like 12-gauge shotguns and bear spray are often available in their camps in the event of an emergency.

But a lot of what the training day is about is making sure that Fish and Game staff know all the rules to abide by before such an emergency ever presents itself.

"If you're alert and you're paying attention, and you're out there walking a stream, you will not be surprising a bear," Spraker said. "Especially when they're around a fish stream. If (they) ever do run into a bad situation with a bear, they know how to use the weapon."

He said killing a bear is actually a last resort, and he said the number of Fish and Game bear-kills in the wilderness in the defense of life and property have been minimal because of the care the department has taken.

"Our fisheries crews have only killed one brown bear in the past 25 years," he said. "That bear was shot as it was chasing another person on the fisheries crew."

And Spraker referred to a hunter who, last month killed a charging bear near Swanson Road.

"That guy did the right thing," he said of the man's single shot from a .300 caliber rifle that put the bear down.

The hunter said he considered himself lucky. So did I after looking at the moving-bear target from the simulation. I didn't stop any live charging bruin dead in its tracks, but the hole through the target's kill zone signified that, for the circumstances, I had also done the right thing.

Marcus K. Garner is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. Comments can be e-mailed to clarion@alaska.net.



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