A brown bear sow with two cubs hanging around the confluence of the Kenai and Russian rivers has caused federal wildlife officials to close a nearby wooded area to foot traffic until further notice.
There are no added restrictions for anglers, who, on busy days, flock to the area by the hundreds, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The closure affects 29 acres of woods on the north side of the Kenai River near the Russian River ferry and parking areas. Both riverbanks are still open up to 25 feet from the river's edge, and the ferry and parking area are operating as usual.
People caught walking through the closed area could be cited by a ranger, officials said.
Managers of Kenai National Wildlife Refuge decided to close the area to avoid potential conflicts between humans and bears, said Park Ranger Janet Schmidt.
"This is next to the ferry, where we have hundreds of people parking, and they need to know it's dangerous to walk through those woods," Schmidt said. "Folks that are fishing there are used to seeing the bears, but you can see them when you're on the river. It's different if you're in the woods."
Schmidt said wildlife officials had hoped the sow and two small cubs would eventually move on after sightings in the past two weeks. Instead, they stayed, she said.
Kenny Blatchford was one of dozens of fishermen who saw the bears at the river's edge Tuesday.
"Everybody was fishing and minding their own business, and somebody said, 'Hey look, there's a bear,' " Blatchford said. "All the fishermen on that side just moved to one side. They ended up stealing some of the fishermen's fish."
The bears are mostly feeding on left-behind fish carcasses, Schmidt said. Anglers are asked to carry out what they catch whole, and if that's not possible for some reason, they should cut up the leftovers and toss the pieces into fast-moving water.
Reducing the amount of fish scraps washing onshore would "help keep people safe and the bears wild," Schmidt said.
Schmidt said she's heard comments from people who think the bears should be run off, and others who are fine with restricting human access to the woods.
"We've got comments from both sides," she said. "Folks that are very understanding of why the area is closed, and folks that are not so understanding."
The Fish and Wildlife Service's mission is to conserve wildlife for future generations, Schmidt said. Killing the bears is an option if state and federal biologists decide they are too comfortable near anglers or pose an imminent threat, but it's not one they want to use, Schmidt said.
"That's the last thing we want to do," she said.
Reach Casey Grove at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4589.
By CASEY GROVE