People must adapt in order to protect their wild neighbors

Posted: Friday, June 21, 2002

It was one of those Alaska moments: getting a closeup view of a young brown bear.

Only Tuesday's wildlife show wasn't happening in the wilderness. It was happening right behind Big Kmart with traffic all around.

It was a vivid reminder of how the neighborhoods of humans and wildlife intersect and connect on the Kenai Peninsula. It also was a reminder that while the young bear might have wandered into what is mostly human turf today, humans were the original intruders into what once was mostly the domain of wildlife.

And it was, most importantly, a reminder that the bear's ability to survive is really dependent on humans' ability to adopt habits which won't threaten the bear, not vice versa. In other words, the bear wasn't the problem on Tuesday, but people crowding it to get a picture and a glimpse were.

The wildlife show had a happy ending: The bear headed out of town.

Unfortunately, if it comes back it may get into trouble; again, because of people's actions, not its own. That's why it's important for people not to do anything that attracts bears -- for example, leave anything readily accessible that would say "lunch" to a bear, including garbage or dog food -- or harasses them -- for example, getting too close for the sake of a picture.

It's important that people keep their distance when they see a bear or other wildlife. Wild animals need a lot more personal space than do humans to feel comfortable, so respect their space and don't get too close.

While Tuesday's bear escaped unharmed from its close encounters with humans, a moose calf crossing the highway near Kenai Central High School Wednesday night was not so lucky. The calf was the victim of a loose dog. It's not the first.

The dogs can't be blamed; they're only being dogs. The fact is, when left to their own devices, dogs chase moose calves and other wildlife.

The dog's owners, however, should know better than to let their pets roam freely about.

The state has a zero-tolerance policy for free-ranging dogs bothering wild animals. Owners should know that allowing their dogs to run free may result in the death of the dogs in order to protect the state's wildlife resources.

That's a big price to pay when such an incident could easily be avoided by humans taking responsibility for their pets.

The state's hard line is easy to understand: Fido isn't part of the natural system; domestic dogs do not depend on wild animals for food.

As Larry Lewis, a wildlife technician with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Soldotna, told the Clarion last month: "These dogs go out and kill calves and go home and lay by their dish and get fed."

And all it takes is one bite from a dog to end a moose calf's life.

Lewis teaches that the two most important things people can do to help protect the delicate balance required when living in close proximity to wildlife are:

1. Always be aware of your surroundings. The peninsula is bear and moose country, and encounters are possible even when walking across a store's paved parking lot.

2. Never assume a close encounter with a wild creature won't happen to you, and live accordingly.

Some other reminders that will help keep wildlife safe:

Keep your distance. Enjoy close-up views with binoculars or a spotting scope.

Don't let your dogs roam free.

Don't feed wildlife. It lures the animals into dangerous situations and almost always leads to a death sentence for the animals.

Report wounded or abandoned animals, but do not attempt to help them yourself.

Don't harass wildlife. Not only is such harassment illegal, but it could frighten the animal. The behavior of scared animals is unpredictable and can create dangerous situations for humans and animals alike. Harassment includes getting too close to an animal for a better glimpse.

One of the unique things about living in Alaska is that humans share their space with wild creatures. In order to ensure places like the Kenai Peninsula remain attractive for humans and wildlife, people must take the lead and make sure they have no bad habits that endanger their wild neighbors. It's not the animals that create the problems, it's the people.

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