Night fishing at confluence suspended

Posted: Thursday, July 17, 2003

Anglers returned to the confluence of the Kenai and Russian rivers Wednesday, one day after a brown bear attack there left a Girdwood man hospitalized in critical condition.

Dan Bigley, 25, remained in critical condition at Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage on Wednesday. There was no other information available about his condition.

Meanwhile, at the popular salmon fishery where Bigley was mauled, fishers went back to fishing elbow-to-elbow in the middle of bear country Wednesday.

"The ferry is open until 11 p.m.," said Fish and Game wildlife technician Larry Lewis. "And people are still up there."

However, anglers will no longer be able to fish during the dark. That's because the Alaska Depart-ment of Fish and Game issued an emergency order Wednesday closing the Russian River and a small section of the Kenai River to fishing between the hours of 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.

The closure will be in effect on the Russian and the Kenai River main stem from the power line crossing upstream to the Kenai's confluence with the Russian.

The U.S. Forest Service also closed its trails along the river during the same time period when the fishing ban is in effect.

The Forest Service has jurisdiction because the area in question is within the Chugach National Forest.

The emergency fishing order was issued by Fish and Game Commissioner Kevin Duffy. In the order, Duffy said due to bears scavenging on fish carcasses, it was prudent to institute the week-long closure in an attempt to reduce conflict between man and beast.

"Closing the area to sportfishing at night for a few days will allow time for bears to move out of the area and reduce the potential for contact with people," read the order.

A press release that accompanied the order stated officials from Fish and Game, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will meet next week to review the situation.

Lewis said he spoke Wednesday with the Russian River ferry's operators, who were making every effort to warn anglers of the danger posed by bears prowling in the neighborhood.

"They're very concerned," Lewis said.

He said the last confirmed bear sighting in the area occurred at around 6 a.m. Wednesday, when a female bear and her three cubs were seen near the Sterling Highway bridge, just downstream from the Russian River campground.

Fish and Game area manager Jeff Selinger said he hopes the bears will eventually move out of the area, though he said that doesn't seem to have happened yet.

"I'm sure that bears are still in the area," Selinger said.

One reason so many bears are concentrated in the area is that the first run of red salmon to the Russian has just ended.

However, the department believes that once the second run of red salmon reaches the Russian River, the bears will naturally disperse from the area.

Tuesday's attack was the second high-profile bear vs. human encounter to occur near the Russian River in less than a week. On July 9, a brown bear sow was shot and killed by an angler who feared for his safety. Three cubs with the sow were later captured by Fish and Game and euthanized by a veterinarian.

The bears are drawn to the confluence of the two rivers for the same reason the anglers are: sockeye salmon.

The problem is that the highly productive fishing hole happens to be just an hour's drive from Alaska's largest city. That's bad news for both bears and humans, which end up concentrated in the same area.

Selinger said the Kenai Penin-sula is home to a healthy brown bear population. The Alaska Board of Game recently upped the quota number of bears which can be killed by humans on the peninsula each year from 14 to 20, although Selinger said that number doesn't necessarily mean 20 bears must be killed by humans. It actually means the number of "bear units" of which cubs-of-the-year and adult bears count as one, while juvenile bears count for half a unit can be killed before hunting is closed or canceled.

As of Wednesday, 11 brown bears, of which five were females, five were males and one was unknown, had been killed by humans this year. That means hunting season is not yet in jeopardy, though many more losses could force Fish and Game to shut down the fall hunt.

Selinger said there is some misinformation about the peninsula's brown bear population. He said the population is believed to be rather strong, and that the department's administrative designation of the population as being of special concern does not mean the bear population is in danger.

"We don't have a shortage of bears on the Kenai," he said.

He said one recent estimate had pegged the number of brown bears on the peninsula at between 250 and 300, although he pointed out that estimate was not based on a comprehensive set of data. The truth, he said, is that nobody knows for sure how many bears are living on the peninsula, and people should certainly continue to exercise caution when venturing into the woods.



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