RUSSIAN RIVER - Encounters have been steadily on the rise between fishermen and bears since the upper Kenai and Russian rivers opened to anglers earlier this month.
Bobbie Jo Skibo, a Russian River interagency coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service, doesn't know exactly how many bears are along the banks of the Russian and Kenai rivers, about 100 miles south of Anchorage. But she said numerous encounters have been reported.
Many anglers aren't getting the point that their actions are contributing to the rise, she said.
Bears drawn to the river by salmon carcasses left by anglers hang around the confluence of the two rivers and begin to develop a tolerance for humans, said Jeff Selinger, the area wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Once that happens, it isn't a big step for them to get close to an angler who gets scared, runs off and leaves a stringer of whole fish.
Once the bears discover they can get whole fish in this manner, they're every bit as hooked as drug addicts. Officials with the Chugach National Forest and the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, the managers of separate banks of the river, have this year been trying to cure anglers of leaving stringers of fish, or their backpacks, where they are easy pickings for a bear.
Federal enforcement officials have issued 100 warnings to anglers in the last nine days, Skibo said.
"It could have been 1,000 if we had the staff," she said. "Anglers who bring bear attractants like fish, food, beer, soda, and even sunscreen must keep their possessions within 3 feet."
There is a sow with two yearlings hanging around the confluence now who know that if they approach anglers they can usually get some fish off a stringer. Biologists can't know for sure, but she could very well be the sow that learned this trick last year when she appeared on the river with two cubs.
Anglers are being constantly reminded to "stop, chop and throw," carcasses into a fast-moving current if they fillet their fish so as to prevent bears from feeding on carcasses.
Nearly 20 cleaning stations dot the Kenai and Russian rivers, Skibo said. Some were moved this season to reduce the chance of carcasses getting caught in eddies.
Anglers are also urged not to use the boardwalks as fillet tables as the scent of blood attracts bears.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is working to develop carcass choppers that will be set beside cleaning stations, Skibo said.
If a bear approaches an angler holding fish on a stringer, Skibo advises them to move slowly in the opposite direction or, as a last resort, toss the fish into the fastest current to prevent the bears from getting it. Selinger noted that if anglers grab their fish and gang up at the approach of the bears, the bears will back down. There are no records of grizzlies attacking groups of people numbering six or more.
Under the rules now in effect on the river, Skibo said anglers must keep stringers readily accessible. No more tying them to a bank and wandering off.
"We hope that folks will comply," she said.