Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Brown bear getting familiar at Jim's Landing

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

A busy boat landing, a popular fishing spot, a stretch of riverbank where fish carcasses tend collect and a young brown bear looking for an easy meal could be the making of a bad situation at Jim’s Landing along Skilak Lake Road.

A brown bear that appears to be 2 or 3 years old has been spotted several times over the weekend at Jim’s Landing and a little farther downstream at popular fishing holes and along well-traveled hiking trails in the Skilak Lake Road recreation area.

The bear apparently doesn’t mind the company.

“He seems acclimated to people. They said yesterday they made noise and he didn’t seem to mind,” said Leila Portell, of Anchorage, on Sunday. She and her husband, Ralph, daughter, Katy, and visiting friend, Fr. Claude Lenehan, of New York, were at Jim’s Landing on Sunday taking pictures of the bear as it wandered around a backwater slough just beyond the parking lot.

Portell said it was making a loop sniffing along the shore, going into the woods then coming back out on the beach.

“People here yesterday said it’s the same bear that was here yesterday. It’s not too bothered by them. It hasn’t gotten too close, although it was sniffing where people have been cleaning fish,” Portell said.

Fishermen along that stretch of Kenai riverbank had spotted the bear Friday, Saturday and Sunday. There was a hand-written sign posted at the Kenai River Canyon trailhead up Skilak Lake Road from Jim’s Landing warning hikers and fishermen of the danger.

So far there have only been sightings and nothing worse.

“Every time (they see the bear) the fishermen have been backing off. They’re doing what they were supposed to do,” Portell said.

Rafting guides with Alaska River Company have been keeping their clients at a safe distance from the bear. They use Jim’s Landing as the end of upper Kenai River float trips, dropping off anywhere from four or five to 40 people this time of year. By about 4 p.m. Sunday they’d landed 33 rafters at Jim’s.

“On occasion you need to grab people by the back of the life jacket and say, ‘No, it’s not the Coca-Cola bear,’ said Kirby Girard with Alaska Rivers Company. “Most people are aware that thing is bigger and faster than me, I need to stay away from it.”

Fr. Lenehan said it didn’t look like the bear was fishing. No one had seen it in the water. It just walked up and down the shore sniffing areas where fishermen had cleaned their catch.

That’s typical bear behavior, especially for that area, said Larry Lewis, a wildlife technician with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

“That area right there collects a bunch of fish carcasses by the bank,” he said.

With the concentration of people in the area, it’s not surprising the bear may be used to the sight of people. If that’s the case, it is even more important they practice proper bear safety techniques and stay away.

“Even if it may not avoid people because of this learned behavior, people still need to respect it as a wild animal. If they approach it teach and it bad habits the animal generally winds up paying the price for people’s lack of making good judgment,” Lewis said.

The situation reminds him of another bear four or five years ago that he had to kill at Jim’s Landing. That bear had been captured and relocated twice but still returned to Jim’s. By early August the combination of fish carcasses washed up on shore and people’s poor behavior spelled a death sentence for the bear.

“The people were actually throwing things to it at the end of parking lot, fish carcasses to eat,” Lewis said. “It actually escalated to the point of people trying to get their picture taken touching the bear.”

Once the bear learned people equaled easy food, it started approaching them and even rushing them, which usually resulted in the people throwing it food.

Lewis waited in the parking lot for three hours until a raft and a driftboat pulled in. The bear ran out of the woods and started grabbing food from them. Lewis made sure everyone was safely out of the area before he shot the bear.

“It was all the human behavior,” to blame in that instance, he said. “When people are trying to touch a bear and are throwing fish to it, they killed that bear as surely as they pulled the trigger,” he said.

“Hopefully that will not be what’s going on now. But, boy, it seems like these things do tend to escalate.”

Fish and Game got a report of a brown bear in the area last week, but so far there have been no reports of it acting aggressively so they haven’t been out to investigate.

Lewis cautions everyone in the area to keep a safe distance from the bear and reminds them it is illegal to intentionally feed bears. Fish and Game and other agencies are especially encouraging fishermen to chop up their fish carcasses, lop off the tails and throw the pieces in the main stem of the river so they don’t accumulate on the bank and draw in bears.

“We’re hoping people will make good choices,” Lewis said. “Alaska is not a petting zoo. Wild animals need to be treated as such. Enjoy them at a distance.”

If anyone does witness a person feeding a bear or inappropriately approaching the animal, he asked that they get the person’s description and license plate number and call Fish and Game, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge or Alaska Division of Wildlife Troopers.

“It’s everybody’s responsibility,” he said. “Wildlife is a public trust resource. It’s managed by the state but that means we all have a responsibility to manage it.”

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