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Southeast Alaska lodge employees fed bears, charges say

A Southeast Alaska lodge’s employees fed fish to black bears for the apparent amusement of lodge visitors after an Alaska Wildlife Trooper overheard their boss, the lodge owner, say it was “feeding time” for the bears, according to an affidavit filed in Craig court Tuesday.

Austin Duckworth, a 20-year-old employee of the floating Clover Bay Lodge, faces a non-criminal citation at his court appearance set for Sept. 30. Pending charges have not yet been served on others involved in feeding bears at the lodge, according to a trooper sergeant.

According to Clover Bay Lodge’s website, the lodge is 15 minutes from Ketchikan by floatplane and just north of Cholmondeley Sound on the east side of Prince of Wales Island and has a maximum occupancy of two dozen guests. A weeklong charter fishing package, using boats parked at the lodge, runs $3,250.

The investigating trooper, Jeremy Baum, hid camouflaged Aug. 9 in the woods among the hungry bears while Duckworth brought a skiff-load of clients from the lodge and anchored 30 or 40 feet out in the protected bay. When they were about 10 feet from land, another employee, Jordan Hernandez, threw fish carcasses to the bears, Baum wrote in the affidavit. The boat held seven others, friends and clients of lodge owner Ryan Morin, according to Baum’s affidavit.

Baum wrote that he heard someone yell “Hey bears!” and whistle before Duckworth drove over in the skiff. Two black bears devoured the fish carcasses, the affidavit says.

Alaska does not issue bear-feeding permits because of the risk to public safety, Baum wrote. Feeding wildlife is problematic in general, but since the floating lodge and associated fishing charters leave Clover Bay in the fall, it also leaves behind a group of bears without a food source, Ketchikan Trooper Sgt. Greg Garcia said. Hunters start using the area around that time of year, Garcia said.

“I’m not just talking about one bear. I’m talking about lots of bears. They kind of know when the boats come in, it’s dinnertime,” said Garcia, who’d seen video of the bear feeding Trooper Baum shot. “In fact, Jeremy had some encounters with bears. Within feet.”

“It sounds like this lodge has been doing this for a while. Because the bears are pretty honed in on it when the boats come in,” Garcia said.

Baum had camped in another area and texted Garcia for help, the sergeant said. The next day, Aug. 10, they boarded the sport-fishing boat Clover Point, captained by Morin, the lodge owner, Baum’s affidavit says. There were two clients onboard with their two halibut in the fish hold, but Duckworth, the employee and a known deckhand, was identified as a client, too, and he was listed as having been “comped” a third halibut in the hold, the affidavit says.

“He’s not the captain. He was just following the captain’s order,” Garcia said.

As a halibut charter deckhand, Duckworth was a familiar name for troopers, who routinely see the fishermen and check their logbooks, Garcia said. They recognized Duckworth and knew he was not a charter customer, the sergeant said.

“Playing dumb, like we didn’t know anything,” Garcia said.

Duckworth later admitted to having caught the illegal halibut, the affidavit says. Duckworth faces a possible fine of up to $300.

Until the charges against others in the affidavit are served, they will not be public, Garcia said. By now, he said, the lodge is likely back in Ketchikan for the winter.

“Once the lodge is gone, these bears are honed in to these people feeding them fish carcasses,” Garcia said. “When the skiffs come in, those bears, they hone right into that launch.”

Garcia said he had not heard about run-ins with bears in the area, but hunters often do not report such encounters, he said.

Contact Casey Grove at casey(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @kcgrove