Bear deaths down on Russian, Kenai rivers

Posted: Wednesday, August 26, 2009

ANCHORAGE - Fish and wildlife managers say no bears have been killed in defense of life or property near the confluence of the Russian and Kenai rivers this summer.

The peaceful summer comes a year after nine bears were killed.

Though no single cause has been identified for the sharp decline, managers say removing those nine bears a year ago has been a factor.

"We killed a lot of bears last year, so we didn't have repeat visitors this year," said Bobbi Jo Skibo, an interagency coordinator working for Chugach National Forest. "But new bears in the area are starting to learn bad habits."

Last year's death toll in a five-mile radius from the confluence of the two rivers was one of the highest ever.

In April, an interagency task force asked anglers to change how they handled salmon. Fish-fillet tables on the slower Russian River were removed. Anglers were urged to pack fish out whole or carry them to the Kenai River, chop the waste into small pieces and toss it into the fast-moving current.

By most accounts, the effort failed; anglers left the riverbanks littered with salmon carcasses.

"Worst conditions from confluence down I've ever seen," said Jeff Selinger, Alaska Department of Fish and Game area wildlife biologist.

Dianne Owen, a manager at Alaska Recreation Management, the company that runs campgrounds for the Forest Service along the Russian River agreed: "It was a nightmare."

Owen is concerned that the lack of bear killings will provide a false sense of success.

"I'm so afraid they're going to give each other credit," she said. "There were more carcasses in the river this year than we've had in years. Thank God there were no incidents."

The Russian River red salmon sportfishing season ended Friday morning, which sharply limits the potential for human-bear conflict. All summer, hundreds of thousands of anglers pursue sockeyes on the river considered Alaska's most popular fishery.

Strong red runs during a year of weak king salmon returns only heightened the Russian's popularity.

Selinger said it's not unheard of to have a summer without a bear killing, and he thinks the conflict will resume unless anglers change their ways.

"Unless carcasses are returned into river in a form where they're not available as food to brown bears, we'll continue to have problems."

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