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Soldotna mans brush with bear too close for comfort

Posted: Friday, August 07, 2009

Last Sunday a fourth brown bear for the year was killed in a defense of life and property (DLP) shooting, and there is no mistaking that it was the former, not the latter, that was on the line for the man who shot it.

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Photos Courtesy Of Greg Brush
Photos Courtesy Of Greg Brush
The claws of a large male brown bear that was killed by Greg Brush after the bruin charged him last Sunday less than a quarter of a mile away from his home off Mackey Lake Road.

"I'm not trigger happy, and I wasn't looking for trouble," said Greg Brush, in regard to the incident that took place along Derks Lake Road, off Mackey Lake Road, outside of Soldotna.

The morning started casually for Brush. He had the day off from guiding king fishermen on the Kenai River, and with hunting season fast approaching, he decided to take a walk to start getting into shape.

"My wife and kids had other stuff to do, so I went alone and took the dog," he said, referring to his German shepherd.

In addition to his canine companion, Brush also decided to take a handgun -- a Ruger .454.

He was fortunate he did, but Brush said it was more than luck than made him opt to carry the pistol. It was a recent history of run-ins with brown bears -- as many as 13 last summer, and several already this season -- that made him decide to take protection that day.

"I've had a bear greet my wife at the base of the front steps, popping it's jaw from 10 feet away. In broad daylight. I've had a sow and two cubs chasing my dog on the front lawn, and had two cubs walk past the kids on the trampoline. And, recently I had bears pull down my bear-resistant garbage can," Brush said.

Back on April, 18, 2005, a jogger also was mauled by a brown bear, roughly 400 yards from where Brush had the run-in with his brownie. All of these factors played into him packing a pistol, but he said he still thought he would never have to use it.

"I just never thought it would happen to me. It's one of those things you just always think happens to somebody else," he said.

However, less than a quarter of a mile from his home, Brush heard a twig snap behind him. He whirled his head around and saw a huge bruin burst from the woods less than 20 yards away. It moved straight for him.

"It came with zero warnings. There was no woof, no jaw popping, no standing up. It just had its head down, ears back and was in a full charge," he said.

Brush's dog was roughly 50 yards in front of him when the bear made it's move, and it ran home frightened. Brush was on his own, and he said he didn't have time to think. He just instinctively reacted.

"I drew my gun and just started shooting in its direction. There was no time to aim. I don't know where the first shot went, but I think the second or third shot hit him. I rolled him at about five feet away," he said.

But, the bear had so much momentum behind him from the full charge, that once it rolled over from being hit by the 350 grain bullets, he still slid several yards across the gravel road, and just a couple of feet from Brush.

"He skidded to a stop about 10 feet beyond where I was shooting from. I actually side-stepped him and fell over backward on the last shot. His momentum carried him past where I fired it from," he said.

"From the time I saw him, until he skidded past me it was seconds, and I'm not exaggerating or fabricating anything," he added.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game investigated the incident and confirmed the scenario played out just as Brush described. They also were able to glean information about the bear, which may have led to it making such an aggressive move toward Brush.

"It was a big boar, roughly 15 to 20 years old, but in poor body condition for this time of year. He was very thin and had significant tooth wear," said Jeff Selinger, area wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Beyond these biological attributes, Selinger said it is difficult to pinpoint the exact reason the bear may have charged, although he pointed out that often bears that have lost their fear of humans have done so by gaining food rewards associated to humans.

These could include improperly stored garbage, the contents of unsecured freezers, food for pets or livestock not properly cleaned, salmon eggs left out to cure for bait or bird seed left out all year, just to name a few.

However, Brush was emphatic that he and nearly all his neighbors work hard to minimize bear attractants.

"Over the past few years, we've taken every precaution possible to reduce or avoid this real and severe bear problem," he said.

Again, Selinger confirmed Brush's statement, for the most part.

"I've been by Greg's place several times and he keeps a very clean area, but a lot of times people doing things right pay the price for people doing things wrong. There have been attractant issues in this neighborhood in the past, and this area is a popular spot for people illegally dumping fish carcasses, so I'd almost guarantee that within a five mile radius of where this occurred there are attractants, and five miles is just a few minutes' walk for a bear," he said.

Brush said he was angered to learn this fact, particularly since if true, someone else's negligence could have contributed to him quite possibly losing his life.

"It's frustrating to learn that some lazy person on Strawberry Road, or Sterling, or wherever, could be contributing to my problem," he said.

Selinger said he is equally frustrated by the matter, and Fish and Game is trying to address this issue though a myriad of methods, of which pubic education is among the most important.

"We're going in the right direction with people understanding and making reasonable efforts to minimize attractants, but we still have a long way to go. To make this work, it is also important for people to make it clear to their community leaders that this is an important issue to them," he said.

Selinger cited Kenai, Homer and Seward as leading the way in taking steps to reduce conflict between humans and bears. These communities are involved in the Wildlife Conservation Community Program, which utilizes grant money and in-kind donations to inform residents on how to live safely in bear country, and to purchase or off-set the cost for bear-resistant garbage cans and Dumpster lids.

Soldotna also is working toward becoming a Wildlife Conservation Community program member, and Cooper Landing and Hope have similar bear programs in place.

However, Selinger said this is still not enough.

"We'd like to see this message go boroughwide," he said.

This most recent bear shooting brings the number of DLPs for the season up to four. The first DLP of the year was an adult male killed at a black bear baiting station off Swanson River Road on May 21, but Selinger could not comment further because the incident is still under investigation.

The second DLP was a subadult bear that was killed near the community of Sunrise, off of the Hope Highway, on June 25. The sex and details of this bruin's death also are unclear at this time, since the person who shot it took the salvaged carcass to the Fish and Game office in Anchorage, rather than Soldotna.

The third one was a yearling male euthanized June 26 by Fish and Game near a dwelling at the end of Denise Lake Drive, off Mackey Lake Road. The animal already had been injured. It was suffering from a gun shot wound that went unreported by whoever fired on the bruin.

In addition to these three DLPs, five brown bears -- one male and four females -- were killed during the spring brown bear hunt.

These combined numbers are a stark contrast to last year when 40 brown bears died as a result of human caused mortalities, of which 31 were DLP shootings.

As to the nine brown bears that died as a result of human-caused mortalities in 2008 that were not related to DLP shootings, one was hit by a vehicle while crossing the road, two were killed during legal hunts, two were shot by black bear hunters who misidentified them, one was a bear euthanized after it was reported and found to be mortally injured, one was a cub euthanized after its mother was shot and a home could not be secured, and two bears were found shot dead and never reported to Fish and Game by the shooters.

Joseph Robertia can be reached at joseph.robertia@peninsulaclarion.com.



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