Managers keep eye on bears and humans on Russian River after incidents

By Heidi Zemach for SCN

A Brown Bear walks on the pedestrian boardwalk at the Russian River. Photo courtesy of the USFS, Chugach National Forest.

A Brown Bear walks on the pedestrian boardwalk at the Russian River. Photo courtesy of the USFS, Chugach National Forest.

A few incidents involving bears and humans interacting unsafely along the Russian River and nearby camping areas have surfaced that have caused agency managers some concern over the past three weeks. They’re closely monitoring the situation, and trying to educate the public about safety—and bears.

Two of the incidents that allegedly occurred in the Russian River Campground involved bears getting into people’s unoccupied tents and exploring them. In one case a bear removed a toiletry item, said Bobbie Jo Kolodziejski, who works for the Chugach National Forest. She is the intra-agency management coordinator on the Chugach NF, and participates in a group that works in cooperation with tribal state and federal governments on a variety of management activities, including bear management.

At the Cooper Creek North campground, off the Sterling Highway near Cooper Landing, a bear went into a man’s tent and took gasoline that he was storing there overnight. The man was sleeping safely inside his vehicle, but had left his tent standing. In yet another incident, a bear reportedly swatted at a tent that a camper was inside of. He deterred the bear by shouting at it, Kolodziejski said.

The Chugach National Forest and its campground concessionaire, Alaska Recreation Management (ARM) issued a safety alert July 13th for the Russian River and Cooper Creek North campgrounds due to these reports, said Sara D. Boario, Public Affairs & Partnership Staff Officer with the Chugach National Forest. Meanwhile the forest service is working to confirm the reports, and will continue to monitor bear activity in the area. ARM is making personal contact with visitors to alert, and help educate them on bear safety measures.

They are reminding visitors that bears are attracted to anything with a smell, and to store such items in a hard sided vehicle or in the storage locker provided on site, and to report incidents to campground hosts or Forest Service personnel immediately. Odd items one doesn’t often consider as bear attractants include toiletry items, mosquito spray, suntan lotion, contact lens solution, gum and candy.  None of these should be kept inside of your tent, Kolodziejski said, only a sleeping bag and a pillow.  She’s also emphasized that tent campers should maintain clean clothes just for sleeping in, with no dinner or breakfast odors on them.

“I’ve joked with people that after roasting marshmallows, to make sure those clothes get set aside, and that there’s a clean set of pajamas for the kids,” she said.

The forest service has not experienced this type of, or frequency of bear activity in the Russian Creek or Cooper Creek campgrounds, other than in August of last year when two tents were collapsed by a black bear jumping on them. As a result of those particular incidents, a tent camping closure was called for safety reasons.

Over the years the various agencies have worked very hard to decrease bear human conflicts on the Russian River, and maintain a safe environment there, she said. This summer the banks of the river have generally not seen too many smelly fish carcasses that would attract bears. The public can continue to do its part by not filleting fish on the site, but rather removing them whole, and keeping their fish stringers with them, or within 12 feet, so that the bears don’t get to them, Kolodziejski said. Other attractants, such as backpacks or coolers should be kept within three feet of those fishing.

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Fly Fishing at the confluence of the Kenai and Russian Rivers, Kenai Peninsula, Chugach National Forest, Alaska.

Fly Fishing at the confluence of the Kenai and Russian Rivers, Kenai Peninsula, Chugach National Forest, Alaska.

It’s more difficult to educate the bears to fear and stay away from humans, however, especially if it’s a learned behavior, passed down through generations, or once a bear has received food rewards as a result of its actions, said Chris Johnson, a supervisory law enforcement officer at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

An angler shot and killed a brown bear at the confluence of the Russian River July 5th, 2013, in a legal “DLP” or “Defense of Life and Property” incident.  This was a three-year-old brown bear that had already been observed acting in a semi-aggressive way. It would approach groups of people, ignore their yelling, and continue to walk toward them trying to push them away from their fish, or from their backpacks, Johnson said. In this case, the bear was bothering a group of anglers, and repeatedly continued pushing between the angler and  separated him from his young son. The angler shot the bear at fairly close range with a single round from his 10 mm handgun. It ran up on the river bank and died shortly after.

A couple of days before, enforcement agents had “spanked” that bear, along with a few other bears with bean bags and rubber bullets which they shot out of a 12-guage shotgun. This particular bear had run off after being spanked and yelled at, but never went very far away, and he apparently continued with his behavior the next day, Johnson said. He confirmed that it was the same bear by the bruises on its backside.

Currently there’s a sow in the area accompanied by a very young cub, who also appears to be very familiar with the troublesome practice of walking up to people and pushing them, or trying to get them away from their stringer or backpacks, Johnson said.

“They’re not getting scared of people yelling at them or being around people. It’s not a good situation. You get all kinds of people there, with all different kinds of experience with bears, and some don’t know how to react.”

“We’re not in the business of destroying bears,” Johnson said. Rather, their task is achieving the delicate balance of having to weigh public safety with protecting the resource. Managers also have tried moving habituated bears hundreds of miles away from the river, but they’re usually back within three or four days, or they start causing problems wherever they’re moved, he said.

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