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Peaceful coexistence between humans, bears on Russian River
Anchorage Daily News


August 21, 2007

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- The bears and most of the people crowding the Russian River during the summer sockeye runs have been behaving themselves, living a relatively peaceful coexistence, officials and anglers say.

No angler has shot a bear this year, as one did last year. And while some bears got into a few backpacks and fish stringers, no one reported an especially threatening run-in.

Despite new signs and repeated public requests to chop salmon carcasses into bits that are less likely to attract bears, full carcasses continued to wash downstream.

"I'm very happy we haven't had any major issues out there," said Alaska Fish and Game biologist Jeff Selinger, who at the season's start had anticipated several carcass-conditioned grizzlies camping out in the area. "We still have some things to work on -- mainly the carcasses."

Going into the season, state and federal agencies announced an aggressive effort to eliminate conflict. It was to include a bear-dyeing plan that elicited derision from critics. The first time Selinger darted one of the grizzlies to mark it with a distinguishing color for observation, the tranquilizer projectile pierced the bear's liver, killing it.

Since then, the only bears that approached humans and became possible candidates for marking were sows with cubs, Selinger said. Biologists decided against risking orphaning the cubs.

Employees at a Cooper Landing guide service, Alaska Troutfitters, said they're hearing fewer complaints of bear encounters this year. Many anglers seem to have learned to take care of their belongings and pitch carcass pieces into swift water, employee Dewayne Holt said.

"I think it has sunk in with some people," he said.

Others, though, continue to create hazards, Holt said. He recalled one instance when he was wading ashore at the Russian River and walked past another angler's stringer of live salmon flopping in the water. The angler was well upstream.

As Holt reached the grassy bank, he came face to face with a black bear. After a tense moment with Holt shouting and backing away, the bear grabbed the salmon.

Holt had words with the angler.

"I explained to him that he almost got me mauled," he said.

The recent calm between humans and bears may be a simple matter of numbers. The late run of Russian River sockeye -- 65,000 by this week last year -- amounted to just 26,000 by Monday.

Bears remain in the area but the number of anglers has thinned, said Bobbi Jo Skibo, a Chugach National Forest employee who coordinates Russian River bear management for state and federal agencies and the Kenaitze Indian Tribe.

The U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stepped up foot patrols by rangers this summer, enforcing the year-old ban on people leaving packs, coolers and other bear lures more than 3 feet away.

Two or three Forest Service officers, often including Skibo herself, patrolled daily, she said. They issued six $125 tickets for letting belongings out of arm's reach, compared with two tickets issued last year.

"People have to realize that they need to be responsible, coming to the Russian River," she said. "The bar is going to be a little bit higher than what they've expected in the past."

Upstream on the Russian proper, people seemed more inclined to keep their possessions on their backs or in their cars, she said.

Successful revegetation projects there may also elicit a greater pride in cleanliness, she said. People no longer clutter the banks with lawn chairs and coolers.

"They didn't bring the yard sale with them this year," Skibo said.


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