Brown bears get reprieve from 'death zone' on Kenai rivers

Mike Campbell
This juvenile bear was wounded by a large boar in mid-August 2010 at Russian River Falls.
Photo by Dianne Owen
A juvenile bear, who was wounded by a large boar in mid-August 2010, fishes for salmon at the confluence of the Russian and Kenai rivers on Thursday.
Photo by Dianne Owen

A brown bear death zone near the confluence of the Kenai and Russian rivers has suddenly become something of a sanctuary.

Just two years ago, nine bears were killed in defense of life and property in a five-mile radius around the confluence of two of Alaska's most popular fisheries. Nearly half the total came from one incident when a sow was shot and its three cubs were euthanized.

But last year no bears died -- a feat repeated this year.

"Public safety has been such a paramount concern that any year with a lack of incidents is a good year," said Bobbi Jo Skibo, an interagency coordinator working for Chugach National Forest, a big landowner in the area.

Among the factors:

• Weaker red salmon runs up the Russian. Only 64,473 reds returned to the Russian this season, down 17 percent from two years ago.

• A rainy summer raised both the Russian's water levels and flow, flushing fish carcasses out of the clear-water stream more efficiently.

• The nine deaths in 2008. "Two years ago, lot of bears got removed from area," said Jeff Selinger, Alaska Department of Fish and Game area wildlife biologist. "That played into it."

• Improved behavior by anglers, who were asked to toss fish waste into the fast-flowing Kenai or pack fish out whole.

"It's amazing to see over the course of three years how we've made a difference with the angler," Skibo said. "When you got to the river five years ago, you'd see coolers and backpacks and strings of fish all over the place.

"Go to the river today and you don't see backpacks laying around and fish stringers unattended. People have realized there's something in place here.

"Mother Nature and environmental variations all play a part. But we saw a lot of people carrying fish out whole or going down to the table at the Kenai river to filet them."

During years of strong Russian River returns, such as last year, biologists often double red limits to six fish, confident that more than enough fish will make it upstream to spawn. That presents anglers who pack their fish out whole with a potentially weighty problem -- carrying six reds that could total nearly 40 pounds.

That never happened this year, as both runs struggled to meet the minimum escapement goal that biologists seek to perpetuate strong returns.

In fact, the traditionally larger second run initially shaped up as the weakest in decades, forcing biologists to close the Russian to red salmon anglers on Aug. 12. More than half the return appeared after the shutdown.

"It's been a ghost town," guide Fred Telleem of Mystic River Fly Fishing said last month. "There hasn't been anybody in Cooper Landing since the first run."

Fewer anglers meant fewer prospects of bear-human encounters.

But not necessarily fewer bear-bear encounters.

Last month, a large boar took a hunk of flesh and fur out of a 2-year-old brown bear at the base of the Russian River Falls.

"That big guy went down and tore into him," said Dianne Owen, a manager at Alaska Recreation Management, the company that runs campgrounds for the U.S. Forest Service along the Russian River and operates the ferry that cross the Kenai River. "It was like a carpet-layer took a knife and ripped off a big section of fur. The young one went off for a few days but came back and is still around. If it doesn't get infected, he should be OK."

Ron and Carol McNaughton, managers of the Quartz Creek Campground there, noticed other wounds near the bear's front left shoulder, but said it had not been acting aggressively.

"It seems to be doing rather well," Owen said Thursday. "But it seems to be getting too familiar with people, too habituated. I just hope it doesn't end up a dead bear."

Reach reporter Mike Campbell at or 257-4329.

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