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Humans and bears in conflict on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula

Craig Medred
A brown bear grazing at Rainbow Valley, along Turnagain Arm, on Sunday, May 13, 2012.
Angela Stapleton| Mackenzie Images
A brown bear stands on it's hind legs at Rainbow Valley, along Turnagain Arm, on Sunday, May 13, 2012
Angela Stapleton| Mackenzie Images
A brown bear grazes along Turnagain Arm on Sunday, May 13, 2012. The bear was observed bluff-charging onlookers who crowded the bear, some of whom came within 10 yards of the wild animal.
Courtesy Helen O'Harra
A black bear walks along the busy Turnagain Arm Trail on May 13, 2012. The trail was packed with families celebrating Mother's Day.
Courtesy Charles Holmes

Spring has come to the small communities of Alaska's central Kenai Peninsula, and along with the change in season begins the battle with the bears. Not your ordinary American black bears, either. These are big, powerful, regularly dangerous grizzly bears.

Some see their invasion as a sign of a healthy and resurgent bear population. Others see it as a pain in the butt. Some see it as both. Alaskans love their wildlife -- until the wildlife starts eating their pets.

"We had two goats eaten by a brown bear," said Erin Knotek, postmaster of the tiny, roadside community of Moose Pass. "I have no one to blame but me ... I had no electric fencing. We chose never to have farm animals again of any sort."

Grizzlies have a simple view of goats, sheep, cows and chickens: Meat on the hoof or foot. The only way to really keep the domestic animals safe is to put them behind high-power electric fences, or shoot the bears that come around and linger in hopes of getting a meal. Every summer for years now, there have been regular shootings in Moose Pass, population 220; Cooper Landing, population 290, and the neighborhood of Tern Lake between the two near the junction of the Seward and Sterling highways about 45 miles almost due south of Anchorage, Alaska's largest city. 

One grizzly is already dead this year. Larry Lewis, a wildlife technician with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, described it as a "sub-adult male" newly shooed off by its mother.

"It was just a dumb little bear," Lewis said.

The problem for locals is that even a dumb little grizzly can rip someone up good, maybe even kill them. Two people were killed by bears on the Kenai in the 1990s. Nobody died in the 2000s, but there were several horrific maulings. Some said it was a miracle Russian River fisherman Dan Bigley survived after a bear grabbed him by the head in 2003. It tore out flesh and bone. Doctors had to rebuild Bigley's face with titanium plates and then graft skin over it. He was rendered blind, but he rebuilt his life.

Papa bear, mama bear or even baby grizzlies are not to be taken lightly, locals say. The animals are fine when they remain shy and hide in the woods, but they aren't always so reserved. 

"The next door neighbor had a bear trying to get in her house," said Erin Duthene, a clerk at Wildman's, a convenience and liquor store near where the Sterling Highway crosses the world-famous Kenai River. "There's been more than one. There's a sow over here now with two cubs. She's been charging people."

Female grizzlies are notoriously defensive. It's not a comforting thought.

"I'm from Florida," Duthene said. "We have skinny black bears down there, and they're hard to find."

After three years on the Kenai, he's discovered grizzlies easier to find. Find grizzly food, and you will usually find bears. Later in the year, food will mean the fat salmon that come storming up the Kenai River to fill the Russian River, Quartz Creek and other spawning tributaries. This time of year, though, the food often means human garbage, a big temptation for calorie-starved bears coming out of hibernation.

Once bears discover the food riches modern Americans discard, it's hard to keep them from coming back for more, said Lewis, who has been active for the past couple summers trying to train the bears to stay away from people. Mixing is never good. It usually ends with someone getting injured, or a bear getting killed.

Lewis said the death sentence for the dumb little bear in Cooper Landing was written by someone who left garbage in the back of a pickup truck instead of hauling it immediately to the local waste-transfer site. The bear got into the garbage, feasted on it, and quickly made the association that people equal good eats.

"I was just on my way up there (from Soldotna) to try to do a little aversion work with this animal when I got the news," Lewis said. "I was getting in the truck when the phone rang. The local wildlife trooper called and said, 'Well, he's been shot.'"

Bears can legally be shot by anyone in Alaska in legitimate defense of life and property, and Lewis said this shooting qualified as such. "A homeowner shot it trying to get into his chickens," Lewis said. "This (problem) is ongoing. Most people are reactive."

Instead of worrying about the bears, and thinking about how to prevent bear problems as winter turns into spring, they wait for problems to arise and then try to figure out what to do. By then, Lewis said, it's too late.

"It's funny," he said. "My wife and I were driving into town this morning. We live in Kasilof" -- a roadside community near Soldotna -- "and we stopped at the waste-transfer site. I remember how they all used to be a problem. Then the borough got proactive. They put out highly bear resistant dumpsters. In the last three years, we have not had any issues with bears at waste transfer sites. "It's really telling when you see that kind of action taken, and you go from 60 to zero that quickly."

Bears still wander past the transfer sites, he said, because bears wander almost everywhere on the Kenai Peninsula. But the animals don't linger and become a problem because there is nothing to attract them. 

Fish and Game has been trying to spread this concept of prevention to the general public, but the effort has not been going so well. People don't want the inconvenience of making sure their garbage is stored where bears can't get it, or the cost of electric fences to protect their livestock and domestic animals.

"I always hear the same thing," Lewis said. "'I've been here for 40 years, I've never had a problem; 'I've been here 20 years, and I never had a problem.'"

He admits these claims might well be true. Kenai grizzlies were once thought on the verge of meriting a listing as endangered. That doesn't seem the case anymore, though biologists are still trying to determine it exactly how many roam the Kenai Peninsula.

Suffice to say, there are now enough to keep people on their toes. There are enough, in fact, it can get nerve-wracking worrying about bears every time you go out the door. It's a little like living in a war-zone; some can't take it and leave. People just have to get over it," Knotek said, "or move."

After all, as some say, "the bears were here first."

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com