Biologists want more bear awareness

Posted: Sunday, September 08, 2002

Fish and Game biologists hope an increased bear awareness campaign keeps anglers safe and a pair of Chilkoot River yearling brown bears from being destroyed or relocated.

The pair, which have been feeding regularly among salmon anglers at the popular fishing spot for about a month, were targeted after they broke into a cooler left by a fisherman on the side of the road.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Polly Hessing said the incident raised concerns about the bears' becoming too bold in their search for food.

Hessing came to Haines to check out the complaints. "We got some calls about the bears being really pushy. They're really used to people, and that's not necessarily a problem."

But problems begin when the bears start to associate people with an easy meal, she said.

She's instructed newly hired Chilkoot River Corridor observer Tom Prang to make sure anglers and bear viewers abide by rules designed to avoid human-bear conflict. "If we can get people to change their behavior slightly, we won't have to remove or destroy the bears."

The rules include ceasing fishing when a bear gets within 100 feet of an angler. "If they want to continue standing there, okay, just don't have a line out. We don't want the bear to associate a person standing there with fish or food," Hessing said.

She added that casting a lure at a bear to scare it off is a bad idea. "A lot of people don't know that bears can get annoyed, and that's not a good thing."

Fish guts should be tossed into swiftly moving water, and landed fish should be stored immediately in a cooler inside a vehicle, not on the side of the road or the river bank, Hessing said. "People come down to the river and leave their stuff when they wander around fishing. We want them to take their stuff with them."

Tour guides are being asked to keep passengers within arm's length of their bus, to avoid crowds gathering for photos when a bear is sighted. "We think that if the guides explain the rationale, the guests will obey. Getting a picture is a great thing, but we're asking them to stay close to the bus. It's a tough thing because it's competitive there, but you don't want people following the bears."

Tour operator Steve Hay said he often restricts his customers to the van when bears are too close. He said despite potential lost photo opportunities, he supports measures to protect the bears. "I totally agree with what they're doing. We don't need people out there on the river. It's just common sense."

Hessing said visitors should avoid Chilkoot at dusk, the best time for bears to forage. "We want to tell people not to go down there when it's too dark to fish. Dusk is an important time for those bears, because after the fishermen leave, they have easier access to the place. Other times you can bet on a pretty solid line of people and cars."

The Chilkoot likely will remain crowed with anglers until late October, when the coho salmon run fades. Hessing said people can avoid bear conflicts as long as they heed guidelines for behavior. "If we can tighten up out there there's a good chance the bears won't get any more human food. It's a lot to ask, but we can do it."

She said the department considered catching and moving the bears to Katzehin Flats. She said that rarely works. Three of 10 taken to the Endicott River from the Haines landfill in l999 returned after a few weeks.

"We're really reluctant to remove the bears. All that does is take the problem elsewhere and doesn't address the human behaviors that helped cause the problem in the first place," Hessing said.

Wildlife protection officer Patrick McMullin said he favors relocating rather than destroying the bears if they become a nuisance. He said the situation has eased as anglers and campers pack up and leave the area. "It's a lot better out there this week with fewer people. It's been super crowded out there since the fair, and that's what causes most of the problems."

Hessing said some Lutak residents have asked that the bears, which sometimes roam through backyards, be destroyed. "Several people have said the bears should be shot. My concern is that somebody will take the law into their own hands out there."

Although brown-bear season starts Sept. 15, it's illegal to hunt within a quarter-mile of Lutak Road or Chilkoot Lake Road. Residents can legally shoot brown bears out of season if the animal is threatening them or destroying property, but the hide and skulls of such bears killed must be surrendered to the state.

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