By CRAIG MEDRED
Anchorage Daily News
October 24, 2005
Gone are the salmon, the people and the grizzly bears. Only the hint of a track disturbs the yellow leaves covering the boardwalk down by the Cottonwood Hole. Below nearly leafless branches, the tall grass is dying and the woods are bare.
Seeing now what was invisible during the summer is a bit of an eye opener. It raises questions whether an angler walking down the riverside trail in daylight could spot any bears.
Peering into a landscape stripped of its veil of lush greenery, it's easy to spot places a bear could have bedded down unnoticed within feet of the summer flood of human traffic.
This was the summer of the bears on the Russian.
Almost a dozen of them, far more than anyone can remember, showed up to scarf the filleted carcasses of red salmon left in the river by anglers.
Some people thought it was cute, particularly when a sow with three nearly grown cubs took up residence on the lower river.
Suddenly the popular, sometimes overcrowded river wasn't just for anglers. It was for wildlife viewers too.
When the sow was needlessly, senselessly and illegally shot, there was public outrage, a nighttime river closure for "public safety" reasons, and much talk about the fate of the cubs. Just how whacky things got as the summer progressed is best summarized by recounting later reports that one of the cubs had gone "missing."
Bears do not go missing. Children, old people with Alzheimer's disease and pets go missing.
Bears go back to the wild, though you would never have guessed that from the hubbub on the river. Lost in the touchy-feely concerns about the fate of the cubs was the possibility that one of the three juvenile bears might actually have learned the proper lesson from seeing its mother shot and killed: People are bad; stay away from people.
Certainly, this lesson was lost on its two siblings. As the fishing season wore on, and these two juveniles mixed with the thousands of anglers who flock to the river every day, the bears became more and more like big, shaggy dogs and less like bears. Any instinctive fear of humans they might have possessed faded. They started herding people around and ripping into the angler's rafts looking for food.
The idea that bears should avoid people in favor of the safety of the wilderness deserted them.
Near midday one recent weekend, for instance, one of these bears was out on a gravel bar just above the Power-line Hole on the Kenai River looking for salmon carcasses. That there were anglers on either end of the same gravel bar didn't faze it. Traffic roaring by on the Sterling Highway less than 100 yards to the north appeared to be of no concern.
There are people who still think this is cute. Some like to photograph bears. Others just like an easy opportunity to watch bears outside of the zoo. It apparently gives them a sense of being in the wilderness without really having to invest the effort to venture into the wilderness.
Some of these same people would go apoplectic if a next-door neighbor brought home a pit bull. Yet this is exactly the sort of situation that has been created on the Russian.
It is now home to two semi-domesticated grizzly bears. "Habituated" is the word biologists would use; it's essentially the same thing.
And there's really no problem with this - aside from a bunch of ripped up rafts and unhappy anglers - at the moment. But Alaska's mountains, glaciers, rivers and, yes, even its wildlife can go from spectacular to dangerous just like that.
Juvenile grizzly bears are notable for their ability to transform themselves from cuddly little balls of fur into dangerous demons of claw and fang. Even little bears - 200 or 300 pounders - are powerful enough to injure or kill.
And like other juvenile mammals, young bears are inherently temperamental.
They can be playful. They can be aggressive. They are constantly testing for limits, which is how young bears explore their world. They're always hungry.
If they have to fight to get food, they will take on any opponent they think they can beat.
It's not something they decide to do. It's something they are driven to do. They are biologically hard-wired to consume in order to put on the fat to get through a long winter.
For these nearly grown cubs, that sleep can't come soon enough. While they snooze, maybe the bureaucracies involved with managing Alaska's most popular salmon stream can do something to set the situation right before spring. There is little doubt the bears will be back then. And if they once again find a bounty of salmon carcasses in what has become an in-river dump, they will stay as bears have historically stayed at other dumps all over North America.
No good has ever come from that.
No good can ever come from this.
In the long term, there are only two outcomes when grizzlies take up residence in dumps and lose their natural fear of humans: Someone gets hurt, or a bear gets killed.
That's the price to be paid if the salmon-carcass-fueled conversion of this river from fishery to bear-viewing area is allowed to continue, and there's nothing at all cute about it for the bears or for the people.
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