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Fisheries biologist Kent Crabtree didn't set out to kill his first brown bear last weekend. And he wasn't thinking how big the animal was as it charged toward him.
"I was thinking how small I was," he said.
He was working last Sunday at the headwaters of the Berners River, about 14 miles upstream from Berners Bay. With his partner from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Wayne Lonn, yelling that the safety on his weapon was stuck, Crabtree fired two rounds from his .338-caliber rifle.
After the second shot, the bear lay dead in the river fewer than 10 feet from where they stood, Crabtree said.
Crabtree said both he and Lonn were impressed with its size.
Fish and Game wildlife biologist Neil Barten said he measured the bear's skull, the best gauge in comparing size. It was the largest recorded in the wildlife management unit, which extends about 100 miles up the Alaska mainland coast.
"It was a big bear racing right at them," said Barten, who had to deal with the paperwork. "My guess is it was at least 20 years old."
Crabtree said he didn't even see the bear until it charged.
"Wayne was alert and ready," he explained, saying how much he appreciated having a capable partner in that situation. "He saw the bear before I did and yelled, 'Bear.'"
The warning gave Crabtree an extra moment, he said.
Crabtree and Lonn were doing radio telemetry surveys. The coho salmon tagged last fall would be dead, but the tags would have been left where they died. He said he had a 6-pound box around his neck and was holding an antenna, which he threw down after Lonn's warning.
"Thank God I was lucky to have a good partner," Crabtree said.
It easily could have been his rifle that malfunctioned, he added.
In 23 years with Fish and Game, it was the first bear that charged Crabtree, he said. He's seen plenty.
"Here in Alaska, if you do field work with Fish and Game, you run into brown bears a lot," he said.
There have been false charges, in which bears have started toward him and stopped, and he's seen others snap their jaws or posture in a threatening manner.
Working in the field isn't like hunting, he said. "We're not there to encounter bears."
But when he sees one, he cocks his firearm.
Why this bear made him shoot, Crabtree doesn't know. They found porcupine quills in a paw, he said. And they found a wet spot on the ground in the woods where the bear could have been lying down on that rainy day.
"We might have woken it up," Crabtree said.
He and Lonn are next scheduled to work in a "very bear-infested field location" in July, he said.