For Soldotna fishing guide Greg Brush, the rare and precious finally arrived -- a summer day off between king and silver salmon seasons.
It was Aug. 2, a little after 11 a.m., when he headed down Dirks Lake Road, a quarter-mile from his home, taking three dogs for some exercise in preparation for hunting season. Brush talked to his animals as they walked past homes on one- to five-acre lots.
The slightest noise -- a twig snapping -- prompted Brush to glance over his shoulder. Less than 20 yards away, a brown bear was charging, "ears back, head low and motorin' full speed.
"Came with zero warning," Brush said. "No woof, no popping of the teeth, no standing up, nothing like what you think."
Brush said he wears a pistol on his walks because bears have chased his dogs in the past.
He drew a Ruger .454 Casull revolver. There was no time to aim, barely time to squeeze the trigger. He's not sure whether he got off two shots or three, but one proved fatal.
"Total luck shot," he said.
"It doesn't get any closer. He slid by me on his chin when I shot him," Brush said. "I was backpedaling as fast as I could. I wasn't even aiming. I tripped over my own feet as I pulled the trigger."
He estimated that the animal weighed 900-plus pounds, and was 15 to 20 years old. It had grass packed in its molars and little fat on its bones.
"It was starving to death and saw an opportunity," Brush said.
The encounter left the fishing guide, in his words, "a wreck -- dry heaving and hyperventilating, with some abdominal cramping."
It also left him with a problem. After state troopers came out to check the bear and determine that the shooting was legitimately in defense of life and property, Brush had to deal with the carcass. The law requires a shooter to skin the animal or take it to a taxidermist.
"So here I am with my wife and with a 10-foot brown bear on the edge of the road."
With the help of four men, he dragged it into a tilt-bed trailer and took it to Soldotna taxidermist Kenny Jones.
A couple of hours later, he returned to the taxidermist to pick up the carcass and deliver it to the dump.
"I never ever thought it would happen to me. It's always some other (guy), right? It totally wiped me out . . . by far the most emotion I have ever felt at once."
LESS FEAR OF HUMANS
The brown bear Brush shot is one of nine that died at the hands of someone other than a hunter on the Kenai Peninsula this year. Through mid-August last year, there were 25.
Hunters have taken five more, with a fall hunt set to begin Sept. 15. State biologists want to ensure that no more than 10 female grizzlies of a reproductive age are killed in one calendar year. They will end the hunt as that number approaches.
In all of 2008, 39 Kenai Peninsula bears were shot in self defense, run down by cars, killed by authorities after being perceived as dangerous, or shot illegally and dumped, said Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Jeff Selinger. It was the second time in three years the death toll has climbed above 20.
One mitigating factor, Selinger said, is that most of the dead bears were young.
"Probably the single most-important component for ensuring a healthy population is adult female survival rate -- and that's been good, about 90 percent," Selinger said. "I don't get as excited as some people do about the bear population being threatened."
The number of deadly encounters suggests to some that the Kenai bear population is growing -- and growing less fearful of humans. Brush is among them.
"Our Kenai Peninsula bears now have no predators, are way too aggressive and the numbers are skyrocketing," Brush said. "Last week I had two chase my dog under my daughter's trampoline five feet from our house.
"And last summer, we had 13 brownies in our yard. We have 'bear-proof' garbage cans, no dog food outside, no bird feeders, no fish carcasses or fish eggs . . . nothing to contribute to this situation.
"I am fed up with it."
He says he's not alone.
"People are pissed off in this community. If we had a town meeting and demanded something be done, oh boy would there be a turnout."
"I don't want to come across as the redneck who hates bears and shot one. I love bears. I've had five occurrences when I could have killed a bear in my yard and did not. But the incidents have increased."
Brush contends Fish and Game underestimates the Kenai bear population.
Selinger said he's confident at least 250 to 300 brown bears live on the Kenai Peninsula, perhaps more. But there's never been a population census, he said, because thick vegetation makes counting so difficult.
"You could spend a lot of money to end up with, say, a count of 500 bears with a plus-or-minus confidence level of 350," he said. "A number like that doesn't mean anything."
More effective, he said, is a population model created using field reports and such indicators as average litter size, the age a sow first reproduces and the first weaning.
"All indications to me are that there are more bears now than a decade ago," Selinger said. "There's no indication of anything threatening the bear population."
Brush agrees. He believes the defense-of-life-and-property deaths are under-reported, too.
"Here's what's happening: For every DLP reported there are three, five or 10 not reported. The reason so many are being killed by DLP is that the population is exploding.
"I love bears. I love seeing them. But we've gotten zero satisfaction from Fish and Game. They won't even come out to our area."
Brush contrasts Kenai bears to those on Kodiak Island, which has one of the highest bear densities in the world -- and where brown bears are actively hunted.
"If a Kodiak bear sees you or hears you, he's gone," said Brush, who has hunted there. "Bears are extremely intelligent and they learn quickly."
In 2008, hunters on Kodiak took 217 brown bears, with 24 from a registration hunt in road-accessible areas, said Doris Mensch, a Fish and Game program technician in Kodiak, a relatively remote land mass about 25 percent smaller than the Kenai Peninsula Borough.
"We're making progress, we now have a legal hunt," Brush said. But the six grizzlies taken by Kenai Peninsula hunters last year barely affects the population, he said.
"We can kill six bears right in my neighborhood," he said. "It's a step in the right direction, but not enough."
One reason fewer Kenai bears are dying this season, Selinger believes, is that residents are acting more responsibly -- securing garbage, using electric chicken fences, securing livestock feed, putting latches on freezers instead of leaving them on a porch where bears have easy access.
Last year, the Quartz Creek Waste Transfer Station in Cooper Landing -- long a bear magnet -- tested several designs for trash bins with bear-resistant doors.
"They found a system that works pretty well, and we haven't had one call this year," Selinger said. "No reports of problems."
That's part of a wider effort to keep bears from "very appealing food items that are high in energy that (bears) can get at a low energy cost," Selinger said.
Particularly important, he said, is breaking a cycle of finding easy calories where humans reside, behavior passed down from sow to cub.
"We've been at this about four years," Selinger said. "We still have a long ways to go, but we're seeing a lot of people take an interest in keeping the attractants away."
Reach reporter Mike Campbell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4329.
By MIKE CAMPBELL