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Russian River a time bomb: Fish carcasse removal would help reduce bear encounters

Voices of the Peninsula

Posted: Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Once again, bears are in conflict with people on the Russian and upper Kenai rivers. These bears are so well-fed that theft of a fish, camp cooler or backpack is usually done by bravado, not by force. But that’s small consolation to anyone terrified by a bear or who accidentally spooks a bear, evoking violent defense. Even innocent bystanders like Dan Bigley can be mauled.

So bears have been shot; when mother bears die, their cubs may, too. How long until more bears are killed or someone shares Dan’s fate? How long until this “time bomb” explodes again?

Blaming bears doesn’t help. There are many places where people and bears coexist easily. Failure “here” and success “there” depends less on different bear behavior than on different human behavior, particularly on differences in how people care for the fish they catch and the backpacks and coolers they carry.

Most of the Kenai River is so swift and deep that bears can’t catch live salmon — except at the end of a run, when dying fish collect in sloughs. The rest of the year, bears largely would avoid the Kenai were it not for the artificial bounty of countless fish carcasses discarded by anglers.

Few tourists understand anything about living among bears, and fewer try to learn. They create a carcass buffet, and bears come to feast. Only once this highly artificial food source is gone will the bears be gone, too — back into wilder areas of the peninsula, foraging naturally. (Keeping dogs off the river banks also might help reduce bear conflicts.)

One way of eliminating carcasses is throwing them into the center of the river, where they are most likely to be swept downstream and into deep water beyond the reach of bears. Small chunks of fish drift away easier than whole carcasses. So government agencies advise anglers to “Stop, Chop and Throw” carcasses.

This and other “best practices” are taught via media announcements and a video playing at the ferry dock. Signs are posted throughout the area. Agency and Streamwatch personnel educate visitors one-on-one. Yet, thousands of carcasses still litter the bottom of the Russian River and banks of the Russian and Kenai, even near warning signs.

What else can be done to deny carcasses to bears? What about grinders along the rivers to turn carcasses into gruel that bears can’t scavenge? Do we also need new regulations that fine anglers for improper carcass disposal?

No matter how carcass supply is reduced, it needs to happen slowly enough that the bears can adapt and find other food sources, so that a shrinking supply of carcasses doesn’t cause the bears to become more aggressive about stealing fish, picnic baskets and backpacks.

That problem might be minimized by temporarily time-sharing river access with bears — giving them nights (for example, 11 p.m. to 5 a.m.) to fish the Russian and a short section of the Kenai without human interference. If bears could eat their fill of fish when people are scarce, they may avoid the rivers when people abound. Time sharing also would minimize close encounters dawn-to-dusk when its hardest to avoid surprising a bear at close range — the main cause of mauling.

Effects of carcass reduction should be scientifically monitored to determine what works and what doesn’t, then assure that benefits outweigh costs.

None of these ideas are new. They have been debated endlessly by the Forest Service, which manages the Chugach National Forest north of the Russian River; Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the Wildlife Refuge south of the Russian, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which manages salmon and bears.

There’s been lots of debate but little action because human safety gets subordinated to a philosophy of doing nothing to restrict angling anywhere at any time, even on a temporary basis. Lest that bureaucratic gridlock continue until someone else is mauled or more bears are shot, it’s time for the public to stand up and demand action. It’s time for you to let each agency know you put safety first.

The sooner carcasses are eliminated and bears are back to foraging away from people, the sooner we will be free to fish where and when we want without worrying so much about close encounters of the furred kind.

Send comments to the Fish and Game Wildlife Division online at grant_hildebrand@fishgame.state.ak.us, Sport Fish Division at tom_vania@fishgame.state. ak.us, Forest Service at rtalbott@fs.fed.us or jmead@fs.fed.us, Wildlife Service at Robin_West@fws.gov, James_Hall@fws. gov or bear_info@yahoo.com.

Stephen F. Stringham is president of WildWatch Consulting and a veteran bear biologist specializing in bear behavior and safety. He lives in Soldotna.



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