By DOUG O'HARRA
Anchorage Daily News
September 23, 2005
The male cub was shot in the leg the same weekend its mother died, perhaps in the same incident. Since then, the two half-grown orphan bears have remained at the river to feed on salmon. But it hasn't been easy.
The male bear limps and swims slower. Snatching fish appears to be more difficult.
But to the amazement of tourists and bear-savvy locals, the female bear seems willing to share the salmon wealth.
"I've observed her kind of sticking close to him and it seems like she's helping him fend for food," said Cooper Landing fly-fishing guide Stacy Corbin, who saw the two bears recently during a driftboat trip.
"She came out and got a fish, and pulled it back, and then she let the other one eat," he said.
The fate of the crippled bear - along with the cinnamon-colored female and a third cub that has disappeared - weighs on the minds of many Cooper Landing residents. Even as birches go yellow and the last sockeye spawners rot in the shallows, people say they're still angry over the shooting of the well-known sow.
"Every day I have more than one customer who comes in the store and says that he's worried about that bear," said Glenda Mitchell, who owns the Cooper Landing Grocery and Hardware store with her husband. "I don't see how he can defend himself from another bear with that leg. And I'm concerned that he can feed himself."
The sow's killing and its aftermath is only the latest major conflict between people and bears on the Russian, maybe the state's most intense and popular salmon fishing stream. A young man was severely mauled two years ago, and anglers have been asked to stop leaving the remains of filleted fish, backpacks and new catches within reach of foraging bears.
"Unless something changes up there, it's going to be the same story year after year," said Jeff Selinger, area wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "If you put thousands of people . . . in close proximity with brown bears in essentially an unsupervised area and have a food source available for those bears, bears are going to die and people are going to get hurt."
So far this year, 17 brown bears have been reported killed by people on the Kenai Peninsula, including at least seven sows of breeding age, Selinger said. Brown bears are considered a "species of concern" on the Peninsula with questions about their conservation and population still unanswered.
Selinger said he plans to meet with federal land managers this fall to talk over ways to reduce conflict at the Russian. One idea might require fishermen to grind up the carcasses left after filleting their catch, Selinger said. A goal is to stop people from dumping so much easy-to-get food in the river during fishing season.
The bear family had been a remarkable sight for at least two seasons, often delighting anglers with their bold tolerance of people. But the cubs also occasionally misbehaved, according to some observers, raiding backpacks and stealing fish from people.
Corbin, who said he never saw the bears act aggressively toward people, said his clients loved to watch them.
"It was like, 'God, I just hope that those bears don't come across the wrong person.' It's almost like you knew (something bad) was going to happen."
The sow was discovered dead in the forest from at least two bullet wounds during the first week of August. The three nearby cubs were agitated, and one was limping.
A 26-year-old Anchorage man was later accused of shooting the mother on July 31 with a Chinese-made assault rifle and leaving the area without reporting what happened to authorities, as is required.
Last month, Michael Oswalt pleaded not guilty in Anchorage District Court to six misdemeanors, including shooting a brown bear in a closed season, failing to salvage the hide and skull, and recklessly endangering people on the river. His trial is set for Nov. 14, according to the district attorney's office in Anchorage.
Within several weeks of the shooting, the boldest and smallest cub disappeared from the river, fate unknown, Selinger said. But the other two, a male and female, remained, with the male continuing to limp as they foraged for salmon.
Selinger and three state biologists darted the male in late August with a tranquilizer so they could examine its condition. Even as the male went down, the female cub stayed close and ended up darted as well.
The female bear was in good shape. The skinnier male bear had been shot in the joint of its left front leg, Selinger said. The wound was healed over and didn't appear infected. The biologist worked the limb closely to check for a fracture or grating noise. It appeared stiff, he said, but sound.
Selinger said they decided the two cubs had a good chance of making it if left alone on the river.
"That bear will always have a limp, but bears survive that way," he said. "If it can gather enough food and avoid being killed by other bears and stay out of trouble with humans, that bear has a good chance of surviving."
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