Temporary closures a matter of safety for humans, bears

Posted: Friday, July 18, 2003

The temporary closure of a popular fishing area to night fishing and a corresponding closure to trails in the same area are the right and wise things to do for the safety of humans and bears alike.

Earlier this week, the state Department of Fish and Game announced it would close the Russian River and a small portion of the Kenai River to fishing between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. through Monday. The Chugach National Forest also has temporarily closed Angler Trail and other national forest lands between the Russian River Falls and the confluence with the Kenai River during those same hours until next Friday. The Russian River ferry, operated by Alaska Recreational Management, also will operate only between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. until further notice.

The closures come on the heals of encounters between people and bears that turned out poorly for both. A Girdwood angler was seriously injured early Tuesday morning after he encountered a sow with cubs near the Russian River Campground. The week before an angler shot and killed a sow when she charged him early one morning. Three cubs were euthanized after the sow was killed.

The incidents are powerful reminders that this is bear country and humans must act accordingly. It is far easier for humans to modify their behavior, even if it means giving up a favorite fishing spot, than it is for the bears to change theirs.

The goal of the temporary closures is to reduce the encounters between bears and humans and minimize the risk of harm to both. It is hoped voluntary compliance will mean further restrictions won't be necessary. If additional restrictions are necessary, humans should take them in stride for their sake as well as that of the bears. There are other places to fish. Officials are hopeful that as the second run of sockeye builds and more fish are more widely available, the bears will disperse naturally.

Even though most humans know this is bear country, it's easy to get complacent particularly at this popular fishing spot. The Sterling Highway runs nearby. Anchorage is about a 90-minute drive away. Anglers are elbow to elbow with one another. Every available camping space has been taken. Thousands of anglers have walked the trail where this week's attack occurred with nary an incident. Even though competition for fish is high, the festive atmosphere may make the place look like some kind of fishing theme park.

The trouble is the bears here are not "Gentle Ben" creatures out of some Hollywood movie.

They deserve respect and should be given their space. The bears don't want to encounter humans any more than humans want to encounter the bears, but right now they are currently after the same fish in a relatively small space.

It is up to the humans to reduce the conflicts any way possible. The closures are a good step in that direction. Anglers exercising healthy doses of common sense and caution also will go a long way. This weekend, for example, anglers can choose to fish where bears unlikely will pose a problem say, other parts of the Kenai or the Kasilof River. The peninsula certainly has no dearth of good fishing spots. After the bears disperse, the humans can return to the confluence of the Russian and the Kenai. No matter where they fish, it would be a good idea for anglers to avoid fishing during dark hours.

If anglers do choose to fish at the confluence, they should be aware of the potential danger and do everything possible to avoid contact with bears. It's important that anglers do nothing to allow bears to associate people with food, advise Fish and Game officials.

Among other advice from Fish and Game: "Throw carcasses and entrails well into the deepest water or in designated receptacles. Secure coolers in vehicles, and place all human and pet food as well as garbage in bear resistant containers. Never provide a bear with any food. Never try to reclaim a fish from a bear.

"If bears show up while anglers are landing fish, cut the line and allow the fish to escape so the bear doesn't make the connection between anglers and food."

If there's a bright spot in the bear-human conflicts of late, it is this: The Kenai Peninsula still has a brown bear population.

Unfortunately, much is not known about that population, including how big it is. Although it is estimated that between 250 and 300 brown bears make their home on the peninsula, nobody knows for sure what the number is.

To protect the brown bear population, that kind of basic information is needed. The brown bear is one of the most powerful symbols of what Alaskans hold dear wilderness unlike anywhere else. It will take a continuing commitment on the part of the humans to make sure the brown bears continue to be a part of the peninsula's landscape.

Reducing potential conflicts by yielding to bears is one way to do that.

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