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Read those Russian River bear attack stories with caution, skepticism

Craig Medred

At least three people were attacked by bears in the Kenai Peninsula's Russian River campground this summer, or at least that's what you might believe if you read the Laurel, Mont., newspaper or have your computer set to track news on Alaska bear attacks.

A "bear had attacked several campers in tents and was being hunted by the rangers'' at the Russian in August, the Laurel Outlook reported in its online edition Wednesday.

This was the full story from Ron Bailey, a Laurel contributor:

"We had a day to walk and wade before the planned floats on the Kenai, so Dave (Allen) suggested we fish the famous Russian River. The river is full of sockeyes with silvers and rainbows mixed in the middle. Doug (Hutcheson) had taken off to the river ahead of us and got a quick thrill as he hopped into the river and surprised a black bear, which quickly retreated up a tree. Jungle Doug thought nothing of it — another day in the jungle for him. We would find out shortly that this bear had attacked several campers in tents and was being hunted by the rangers who checked our fishing licenses 10 minutes later. They trotted off after the bear."

Strange observations, false claims

Bailey runs a public-relations company called Wild West Promotions in Laurel. In these days of anyone-can-do-it journalism, he penned a three-part series -- "Fishing adventure in Alaska'' -- for the local newspaper. As with so many of these stories written by visitors to the 49th state, it contained some strange observations and some totally false claims. The bear attacks are among the latter.

Nobody was attacked by a bear -- black, brown or grizzly -- at the Russian River this summer, said the Chugach National Forest's Bobbi Jo Skibo. The Russian River campground is one of the most carefully monitored campgrounds in Alaska. The Forest Service has for several years maintained an active program at the Russian designed to eliminate problems between bears and humans, both of which are attracted to the river's annual bounty of returning sockeye salmon. Skibo heads that program.

She did close the campground to camping in tents for a portion of the summer after an unusually bold black bear flattened a couple empty nylon structures in an apparent search for food. But Skibo stressed the tents were unoccupied. No people were attacked.

No one attacked since 2003

No one has been attacked by a bear on the Russian since angler Dan Bigley was badly mauled and nearly killed by a grizzly in 2003. Efforts to manage growing conflicts between bears and people began shortly thereafter and have continued with considerable success since, though bear hunts by rangers do not take place along the river despite what Bailey may believe.

Many black bears range through the Russian River area, and it is hard to tell one black bear from another. That makes it pretty near impossible for anyone to go on a hunt along the river expecting to identify a bear that has been causing trouble in the campground. Rangers primarily patrol the river to make sure anglers keep their fish and gear with them; serious problems have arisen in the past with salmon left on riverbanks and coolers full of food attracting bears.

The part of the river used by anglers is not a good fishing place for bears. The bears that fish the river tend to work the Russian River falls where the salmon school up and fight their way upstream as at the McNeil or Brooks rivers in Southwest Alaska, both of which are famous for their videos and photos of fishing bears. The bears that come to the middle of the Russian are mainly looking for salmon or salmon carcasses dumped by anglers.

Furry shapes

It is the same with the bears that visit the confluence of the Russian and Kenai rivers no matter what Bailey might believe:

"After an hour of fishing, Kent and I walked down the trail ramp to the confluence of the Russian. We waded out to the river’s edge to start fishing the stream when someone yelled, 'Here come the bears.' That got our attention as we scanned the ridge on the opposite bank of the Russian and saw some furry shapes half covered by trees and moving slowly along the hillside. As they came lumbering down the human-built stairs to the river, the 500-pound momma and her two 300 pound, 3-year-old cubs crossed the river headed right at us.

"We had no trouble giving the bears our fishing hole. We walked briskly away to the ramp about 60 yards where two rangers were holding shotguns. They were the same rangers that were hunting the black bear. The rangers knew the bears, as they fished here often. The rangers even told us which cub was the better fisherman."

The Russian-Kenai confluence is one of the most people-crowded fisheries in Alaska, but it is not unusual for bears to show up there. They come to collect carcasses of salmon thrown back into the Kenai by fishermen who filet their fish at the confluence to take home the filets. The bears do not fish in the area. Not sows. Not cubs. Their appearances have, however, made the area into something of a bear-viewing attraction in recent years.

"After watching and filming these beautiful animals fish and play with one another for about half an hour, we felt we had discovered another part of Alaska,'' Bailey wrote. "Go to Alaska and you have a good chance of seeing the Alaska brown bear (grizzly) and black bear. The rangers explained that people are more the problem than the bears because they throw things at them and aggravate them. I, for one, have no problem leaving them alone. After watching the bears, fishing with Mike Blohm became more popular. He was the only one with bear spray."

People are a problem at the Russian because a lot of them simply do not know how to behave around bears, especially grizzly bears. The problem usually isn't that they throw rocks at the bears, however. It is that they decide to get close to do some "filming'' or take photographs because they believe the bears are friendly () -- or start shooting because they believe the bears are deadly dangerous

The bears are neither. They are wild animals just trying to get enough food to make it through the winter.

Not that one shouldn't be wary. Bears can be a dangerous problem on the Kenai Peninsula in the summer. Wildlife authorities say that is one of the costs -- and benefits -- of living on the edge of a vast wilderness area. Much of the Kenai is protected from development as part of the 5.4-million-acre Chugach National Forest or the 2-million-acre Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, which abuts the forest.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com