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Killing of 2 young bears in Naknek raises array of questions

Craig Medred
John Gomes / Alaska Zoo

Alaska State Troopers say a 36-year-old physician's assistant in the Western Alaska community of Naknek killed two grizzly bear cubs and dumped them in the local river last month. Trooper this week charged Katie Copps-Wilson with two counts of failing to report or salvage a brown bear killed in defense of life and property.

Copps-Wilson, a one-time health aide in the Bristol Bay village of Levelock, went back to school in her 30s to study medicine further, and last fall was in the first class of physician assistants to graduate from the University of Alaska Anchorage. Shortly thereafter, she took a job with the Camai Community Health Center in Naknek, a fishing community of slightly more than 600 people on the edge of Bristol Bay about 300 miles southwest of Anchorage.

How exactly Copps-Wilson got in trouble with the law is unclear.

Troopers notably did not charge her with illegally killing the two bears, which are not exactly what most people would think of as "cubs" either.

"They would likely have been last year's cubs," Trooper Joe Wittkop said when reached by telephone in Naknek. "The one I saw was a yearling," said area wildlife biologist Meghan Riley of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

By law in Alaska, grizzly bear yearlings are legally treated as "cubs" because the young bears traditionally spend two summers, sometimes three, with their mothers. The "cub" designation is intended primarily to prevent hunters from shooting sows with cubs. It is conceivable someone could mistake a pair of yearlings roaming around on their own as adult bears.

Neither Riley nor Wittkop was sure of the size of the dead bears, but they had grown beyond the roly-poly stage. Riley said she saw only a skull when she was asked to age the bear to make sure it was not an adult. Wittkop said the carcasses had been in the water for days before he found them washed up on the riverbank. That makes it hard to estimate size. Still, he guessed the bears could have weighed 150 to 200 pounds -- big enough to threaten someone.

And Wittkop believes Copps-Wilson felt threatened.

"They were shot in defense in life and property for causing problems at the residence," he said. "It appears it was legitimate. However, follow-up was not done. It was not salvaged, and they (the bears) were not reported to us."

He declined to speculate on why Copps-Wilson didn't do that. It is possible, he said, that there are people in Alaska unaware of the requirement to notify authorities of kills made in defense of life and property -- DLP shootings as they are commonly called -- or of the requirement to salvage the hide, claws and skull for the state. People unaware of this, however, are more likely to live in urban Alaska than rural Alaska.

Most who live in rural Alaska are well aware of the DLP requirements, which are burdensome. It takes some people hours to properly skin a bear. It is possible Copps-Wilson rolled the bears into the river to avoid that chore -- if, in fact, she shot the bears as troopers claim. She has yet to enter a plea to the charges lodged against her.

Repeated attempts to reach Copps-Wilson proved unsuccessful.

Bears are a regular, summer problem in Naknek, as they are in many Alaska communities. They roam the beaches along the Naknek River and sometimes wander into town. They have been known to enter buildings in search of food.

Problems this year have been typical, Riley said: "It's been sort of standard for this time of year. We haven't had a whole lot of problems." Nevertheless, there have been "bears getting into freezers that are maybe too close to the outer doors of houses," Riley said.

The charges against Copps-Wilson are misdemeanors, but she could face a hefty fine. An Anchorage man who shot a bear last year and then claimed DLP after authorities found out about it, was hauled into court and fined $3,800, along with getting a 30-day suspended jail sentence. But authorities questioned Brian Garst's claims to self-defense, noting he shot a grizzly sow in the back after she grabbed a leg of moose meat he'd left in the yard and went running back to her cubs with it. The orphaned cubs eventually ended up in a Lower 48 zoo.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com