Author’s note: The Clarion first published this column on Aug. 11, 2006. It has been edited it for brevity. — LP
I live in a subdivision near the Kenai River in Sterling. In summer, my neighborhood is busy with people and vehicles coming and going, so it’s not the sort of place you’d expect to see a bear. However, despite all the human activity in this neighborhood, a bear recently pulled down a flower box that had been hanging on the wall of my house.
This was the second time in three years that a bear pulled down that flower box. I suppose it could’ve been the same bear, but over the years, bears have stolen salmon eggs, bitten holes in my plastic gasoline containers and tipped over my smokehouse and barbecue. And yet, despite all this, I like having them around.
I’m no expert on bear behavior, but in my 40-some years in Alaska, I’ve learned some things about them. One is that there are very few “problem” bears. Their main “problem” is that they have only about six months to fatten up for winter hibernation, so they must constantly search for food.
Bears are good at finding food. Like us, they’re omnivorous — they’ll eat most anything. They can smell carrion from miles away. They know within a few days when certain plants and berries are ready to eat, and where to find them. If a female bear learned from its mother that salmon can be caught at a certain creek at a certain time, her cubs will learn from her. Bears don’t get enough credit for their natural intelligence.
On the other hand, a young bear doesn’t have to be very smart to learn how to bluff an angler out of a fish, or a hiker out of a backpack. Some people are so terrified of bears, they back away when one approaches, thoughtlessly leaving food behind — salmon on a stringer, a lunch in a backpack, food in a cooler. The bear might’ve done nothing threatening. It simply walked in the human’s direction, and was rewarded with food. A few such successes, and the animal loses its natural fear of humans. Without the tendency to avoid human contact, it becomes dangerous and usually ends up being shot.
Here are some ways to avoid teaching bears to link food to humans, and to stay safe in bear country:
— Don’t teach bears that human food or garbage is an easy meal.
— Avoid taking anything that smells like food into your tent, including boots or clothing that smell of fish.
— When bears hear a fish make splashing noises, they know it’s in trouble and can sometimes be caught. “Playing” a fish will at times attract a bear. If a bear approaches, cut your line or break the fish off, stand your ground, and the bear will usually lose interest and leave. If it doesn’t leave, back slowly away.
— If you fillet fish, cut the carcasses into hand-size pieces and throw them into fast water, so they’ll wash downstream. Whole carcasses in the water attract bears, like the two juveniles that have been hanging around the lower Russian River all summer.
— Never run from a bear. You can’t outrun one, and running may trigger a chase.
— Camping near spawning streams is just asking for trouble, especially if any bears that consider humans as providers of food are around.
— Everywhere in Alaska is “bear country.” Be alert.
— Walking in tall grass or bushes along a salmon spawning stream can be hazardous. The noise of rushing water and wind in the trees can mask the sound of your approach. To err on the safe side, be noisy when traveling, especially when visibility is limited.
— For your own safety, for the safety of others and for the good of the bears, learn all you can about bear behavior. Without bears, Alaska just wouldn’t be Alaska.
For more about bears, visit the Alaska Department of Wildlife Conservation website (http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=livingwithbears.main). Or pick up a free brochure at the Department of Fish and Game offices at 43961 Kalifornsky Beach Road, Soldotna.