An Anchorage man has been charged with shooting and killing a brown bear sow last month near the Russian River.
According to charging documents filed in the case, Michael B. Oswalt, 26, deliberately shot the bear which had been hanging around the river with her three cubs most of the summer without provocation on the morning of July 31.
Kenai National Wildlife Manager Jim Hall said Thursday he’s happy someone has been brought to justice in the case.
“We are extremely pleased,” Hall said. “Good case, good law enforcement.”
Oswalt has been charged with six counts, including taking a brown bear in a closed area, taking a female bear with cubs, failure to salvage the hide and skull, hunting a brown bear without a proper tag and reckless endangerment.
The bear was found two days after the shooting took place. After the dead bear was discovered, the popular fishing hole at the confluence of the Russian and Kenai rivers was closed between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. every night through Aug. 21 because of the potential threat posed by the orphaned cubs.
According to the state, refuge officer Clayton McDermott talked to Oswalt and a companion, Aaron Carter, at 8 a.m. after hearing shots fired around 7:30 a.m. Oswalt admitted to shooting his Norinco SKS 7.62 X 39mm rifle but not at a bear.
On Aug. 2, refuge officer Chris Johnson responded to a report of a possible mauling and was charged by three cubs. At that time he discovered the dead sow. The bear had been shot in the leg and body, damaging internal organs and killing it.
On Aug. 4, Oswalt was contacted by special agents in Anchorage. At that time, he claimed that he and Carter came upon thee bears wading in a pool. He said the bears looked at he and Carter and began moving toward them, so he shot at them three or four times. According to the charging documents, he told investigators that he was “98 percent sure” he didn’t hit any of the bears.
After the agents again contacted Carter, however, Oswalt’s story changed dramatically. After telling the agents he believed Carter would say he shot too soon, he laid out a different story of the morning’s events.
According to the documents, Oswalt told investigators that after he saw the bears, he immediately dropped his bags, unfolded the stock on this gun, got down on one knee and fired at the middle bear. After that, he said the bears were “acting weird,” so he shot three more times at them. He and Carter then ran down the trail.
Later, Oswalt said he returned to look for shell casings. He also said he talked with Carter in order to get their stories straight.
On Tuesday, agents again contacted Carter, who provided an affidavit that said the bears were not moving in the men’s direction until after the first shot was fired. He also said that after they ran away together, Oswalt told him he thought he had hit one of the bears.
Also Tuesday, criminologist Robert Shem informed investigators that ballistics tests from a bullet removed from the sow matched Oswalt’s rifle, and charges were filed the following day.
The shooting prompted a number of area residents and river enthusiasts to question why more wasn’t being done to keep people and bears away from each other at an area known for such encounters. A high-profile mauling in 2003 led to a similar nighttime fishing closure, but restrictions were eased the following summer.
Dean and Nina Cornett of Cooper Landing have been among the most outspoken bear advocates in the area and even offered a reward of $5,000 for information leading to an arrest in the case.
After hearing that law enforcement had cracked the case, Cornett said he was happy someone had been brought to justice.
“Well great,” he said. “That’s really good news.”
“Word was flying around here that they had worked out a name pretty early on.”
Now that Oswalt has been charged in the case, Cornett said he’s planning to keep the reward money in case a similar shooting takes place in the future.
“We’re making that a standing reward,” he said. “Anyone that thinks they’re going to go down there and shoot a bear, they’ve got that money hanging over their head.”
Despite the arrest, Cornett said he’s hopeful that management changes can be made to prevent future encounters between man and beast.
“Our feeling is the river needs to be closed between 11 at night and 6 in the morning,” he said.
Cornett noted that many people fishing late at night are either fishing illegally snagging or simply drinking beer and partying. Because the area is in bear country and full of rotting fish carcasses, he said it’s only natural that people and bears into each other.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” he said.
Cornett did note, however, that since the bear shooting took place, enforcement officers from the refuge and U.S. Forest Service (both have jurisdiction in the area, which straddles the refuge and the Chugach National Forest), have been more visible in the area.
“The enforcement is definitely making a presence there,” he said.
Five of the six charges are class A misdemeanors punishable by up to a year in jail. The charge of taking a bear without a proper tag carries with the possibility of 90 days. Oswalt is scheduled to appear in court on Aug. 30 in Anchorage.
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