A close look: Bears fish for salmon on the Kenai River

Fish and Game officials urge caution to keep wildlife from associating people with food.

A brown bear sow and three yearlings fished for salmon on the south bank of the Kenai River on Thursday evening, watched by wary fishermen downstream and a crowd of passers-by across the water.

Jeff Selinger, a regional wildlife management coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said that brown bears, particularly females and young ones, use the area every year as salmon travel upstream.

“Generally speaking, we don’t see a lot of activity by large adult males in that area,” Selinger said. “More so, subadults or sows with offspring.”

On Thursday, the bear family focused its salmon-snatching effort on a bend in the river, about a half-mile downstream from the Russian River Ferry crossing. Fisherman attendance was relatively light in the high-usage section of the river nearby, but several fishermen could be seen about 50 to 75 yards downstream. At one point, a fisherman banged on the hull of an aluminum boat to run off a cub that passed the group of six people along the shoreline.

Marion Glaser, Russian River Interagency Management coordinator, said about 200 bear sightings are recorded each summer near the confluence of the Russian and Kenai rivers. This year’s total has been about average so far, she said, with 107 recorded as of last week.

“It always picks up later in the summer,” Glaser said. “The second run of sockeye salmon is generally a little bit bigger than the first run, and it’s not unusual for several different bears, or groups of bears, using the river at the same time.”

“Obviously they have a short summer season to obtain enough calories to last them through the whole winter. The salmon is an extremely important food source,” said Glaser, who coordinates with Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, Chugach National Forest, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Kenaitze Indian Tribe, CIRI Native Corporation and Alaska State Parks to manage the popular area.

Thursday evening, the bears mostly ignored the humans and instead focused on fishing in the blue-green river. Two of the young bears swam nearly all the way across and drifted downstream in the strong current, before they turned to head back toward the sow. Natal collars - patches of light-colored fur near the bear’s neck and shoulders - could be seen on all three young bears.

A couple times, a black bear sow and cub also emerged from the woods nearby, but never got close to the bigger bears.

On several occasions, the brown bears pulled salmon carcasses, already filleted, from the water. The carcasses were likely discarded by fishermen upstream who opted not to bring home the whole fish. That situation is one that officials try to avoid. Fish and Game asks that fishermen take their fish off-site for processing elsewhere. Those who choose to fillet fish at the river should chop up the carcass and throw the pieces into the fast-moving current. That practice keeps from creating a concentrated food source near humans.

“The current can carry it down out of that high-use angling area so we don’t end up with this buffet of carcasses that looks very attractive from a bear’s perspective,” Glaser said.

That’s not the only safety concern when bears are spotted on the Kenai. On Thursday, dozens of people stopped to watch the animals. Many did safely, but some cars stopped in the traveling lanes of the Sterling Highway to watch. Other people stood in the roadway. Some drivers reacted angrily, blaring their horns, yelling out of their windows and revving their engines.

“The Seward and Sterling Highways see a lot of traffic accidents every year, and nobody wants to contribute to those statistics,” Glaser said.

“What you don’t want to do is approach that bear, or any wildlife, in any way that could cause them to change their behavior or feel threatened. And you definitely don’t want to stop in the middle of the road or do anything that would cause you or your family to be an obstruction to the safe flow of traffic,” she said.

Upstream, Russian River Ferry operators Jack Welsh and Jacob Commer said bear sightings have been a daily occurrence lately. Welsh, a ferry captain, said he occasionally has had to delay a river crossing because a brown bear was fishing right next to its terminal on the south side.

Commer, a first-year deckhand, said the thrill of seeing the animals is gone.

“Now they’re just here,” he said.

Selinger emphasized that bears can be anywhere on the Kenai Peninsula and that people should give them plenty of space and do their part to keep wildlife from associating people with food. That includes proper fish carcass disposal, keeping stringers and belongings close, and cleaning up garbage.

“You might be fine, but you might be setting up the people who follow you into that area for something bad to occur,” Selinger said.

Read more about fishing in bear country at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game website.

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Marc Lester

Marc Lester is a multimedia journalist for Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at mlester@adn.com.