Kenny Bingaman loves to eat black bear because he thinks no other game meat comes close to matching its flavor.
"They're just big black hairy greasy pigs," he said, and all of that greasiness makes them yummy.
And so three times a week from mid-April to late June, Bingaman replenishes the dog food and vegetable oil at three bear-bait stations registered to him and his wife near Clam Gulch. Someday, he hopes, the bait will bring tasty black bear his way.
But so far, the bait has been a magnet for grizzlies, including two mammoth animals shot last month that could wind up in the record book.
Duane Smith of Soldotna killed a brown bear whose skull unofficially measured more than 29 11/16 inches on May 29, Bingaman said. Nine days earlier, Blaine Anliker of Chugiak killed one with a skull unofficially measured at 29 inches.
If those measurements are confirmed by Boone & Crockett after a 60-day waiting period, Smith's would be the largest brown bear killed by a hunter on the Kenai Peninsula and Anliker's would be among the biggest.
Bingaman's measurements came from a Soldotna taxidermist. Measurements taken by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, also unofficial, are slightly smaller, but whatever the final measurements, the bears killed at Bingaman's bait stations qualify as huge, a state biologist said.
"That's definitely big for brown bears," Kenai area wildlife biologist Jeff Selinger said. "Last year we had a few large bears harvested as well. We've known for years there are some large brown bears on the Kenai Peninsula."
Smith and Anliker are friends of Bingaman, a Soldotna fishing guide.
Anliker, a 54-year-old contractor, got his bear on a Wednesday morning after two nights in a tree station he said was about the size of a Cessna 180 cockpit.
He said he saw three or four other brown bears at the bait station, "but nothing tripped my trigger." Those bears looked to be 8.5 to 9 feet, and Anliker was hoping for a 10-footer.
"Then this guy came around in the morning," Anliker said. "All of a sudden I heard a snap behind me and I turned around and here he came waddling in."
It took three rounds from a Ruger .458 Win Mag, fired from distance of about 35 yards, to kill the bear.
One of the bear's front paw pads measured 11 1/2 inches, and the hide squared to 10 feet 7 inches. After the head, hide, paws and about 75 pounds of meat had been removed, the carcass weighed 974 pounds, Bingaman said.
"You have to bring the whole bear out, and that was a feat in itself," Anliker said. "I don't know how long that took. We weren't equipped for that size of a bear."
At the taxidermist's, it took two people two hours to hide the bear, he said.
The weekend following Anliker's kill, Smith spent a couple of rainy days and nights in one of Bingaman's tree stands. Smith came down bear-less but went back up into the tree stand on a Friday. Within hours, the big bear showed up. Smith killed it from about 30 yards away with two rounds from a custom-made rifle, Bingaman said.
That bear's hide squared at 10 feet. One of its front paws measured 10 1/4 inches and its carcass, minus the head, hide and paws, weighed 880 pounds.
The skull of the biggest grizzly taken by a hunter on the Kenai Peninsula is 29 and 1/4, Selinger said. The skull of the world-record brown bear is 30 3/4, killed in 1952 on Kodiak Island.
In 2013, Soldotna's Neal Strausbaugh made news by killing a brown bear whose skull measured 29 inches. At the time, Selinger said Strausbaugh's bear appeared to be the biggest shot on the Kenai since the 1960s.
'These bears are everywhere'
Last spring marked the first time hunters could legally kill brown bears over a registered black bear bait station, Selinger said. Doing so is legal April 15 to May 30; the season for hunting black bears over bait lasts until the end of June, he said. Such hunting became legal after a 2013 Alaska Board of Game meeting in Kenai.
"The majority of the testimony was people wanting to see brown bear numbers reduced," Selinger said. Bingaman was among those who testified. He said he brought pictures of 200 brown bears that visited his bait stations over the course of two years.
The state doesn't track the number of brown bears on the Peninsula, Selinger said. A federal study puts the population at about 700, but Bingaman thinks that number is exceedingly low. "These bears are everywhere," he said. "My estimate is 2,500 or more."
Bingaman believes the brown bear population, and the number of big brown bears, has grown significantly due to the many years when brown bear hunting was illegal on the Peninsula. "From the late 1990s to 2012, there was very little harvest of brown bears on the Kenai Peninsula," Selinger said.
During that time, the number of human-grizzly encounters increased, he said. They peaked in 2008, when the state recorded about 40 nonhunting mortalities – bears killed in defense of life and property or by vehicles. Last year, with relaxed hunting regulations in place, nonhunting mortalities dropped to four, Selinger said.
Among the relaxed regulations is the one permitting brown bears to be taken over black bear bait stations.
Last spring, 40 of the 52 brown bears killed by hunters were taken over bait stations. This spring, 16 of 18 were.
More brown, fewer black bears
Bingaman said he has not shot a grizzly at his bait stations, which date back to 2010.
"To be honest I don't care about killing a grizzly bear at all. I'm a black bear man," he said. "I pass them all up. It'd have to be the perfect 10-foot blonde with beautiful black legs."
Bingaman said he shot two black bears in 2010 but hasn't shot any since because he seldom sees any. "I've seen two this year, and that's all," he said.
Bingaman, who contends many bears have characteristics that distinguish one from another, has cameras set up near the bait stations so he can keep track of the black bears that visit the area. In 2010, he counted 39 black bears. In 2011, he counted 17. Then next year, nine.
During that same time, the numbers of grizzlies he saw quadrupled into the hundreds.
Anliker, who said he sometimes sees brown bears while hunting moose and caribou on the Peninsula, doesn't doubt Bingaman's numbers.
"He's sent me pictures. He's got a lot of pictures of a lot of bears," Anliker said. "If you see a couple mice in your house, you've got a lot of mice. It's a small area that he's drawing from, and there's a lot of bears down there."
And some of them are apparently huge, like the ones killed by Smith and Anliker.
"Because no one's hunted them we have a lot of really large brown bears," Bingaman said. "They have no enemy. A pack of wolves can sometimes run a medium-sized bear off a kill, but those two bears, a pack of wolves aren't gonna bother them at all."
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