It has been a while since I have been up close and personal with a bear. It happened quickly. I was distracted while walking along a boardwalk, looking for dropped sunglasses in the high ferns.
On the opposite side of the boardwalk, the same tall ferns hid a black bear and her two cubs who had left the river after feeding on salmon carcasses.
As a wildlife biologist who spent the better part of 10 years catching and radio-tagging black bears and then another nine years working with stakeholder groups to implement tools to minimize attracting bears, I should have known better.
This encounter occurred much like many human-bear interactions. It happened in a blink of an eye, was not anticipated, and ended well for all. A good reminder that we can continue to enjoy our outdoor experiences in bear country. It just takes continued situational awareness and being prepared to encounter a bear.
For the most part, bears avoid people. However, the frequency of seeing and interacting with bears is increasing and relates to the growing popularity of wild areas.
In a place like the Kenai Peninsula, which sees hundreds of thousands of visitors each summer and a human population that grew from 5,000 to almost 60,000 people over the last 80 years, bears are becoming more accustomed to people.
Not long after I saw the black bear and her cubs, two brown bears decided to join the line of anglers on the river. Their arrival was accompanied by an unspoken mass movement as anglers backed closer to the bank. The bears arrived before the next pulse of salmon moved upstream, so they departed as silently and quickly as they arrived.
I looked around and saw that people were also ready to see bears and do their part to keep bears behaving naturally. Backpacks were kept on anglers’ backs or lay on the banks within arm’s reach. Fish stringers were within a few feet of people, and bear spray was seen in many wader pockets or strapped to wading belts.
The old adage, “It takes a village,” came to mind as I saw everyone doing what was needed to share the river with bears.
Another popular activity on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge that places people and bears in the same place is camping. Like fish stringers, attractants in backpacks and salmon carcasses on the river, coolers, food on picnic tables and trash offer bears a more consistent food source than what nature provides.
Unfortunately, sometimes people even offer food to coax bears closer for photos, unwittingly setting bears up to become bolder around people. Acquiring these unnatural food sources becomes a food reward and sets the stage for bears to equate people with food.
Bears obtaining food in these circumstances in campgrounds become “food-conditioned” and less fearful of people. Once bears are food-conditioned and associate people and campgrounds with food, behavior can escalate to collapsing tents and even breaking into campers. This behavior, unfortunately, brings up another old adage – “A fed bear is a dead bear.”
Like my recent experience on the river, where anglers were doing their part to reduce bear-human conflicts, we can do a few things while camping to prevent bears from becoming food-conditioned, including some that don’t quickly come to mind.
It is pretty easy to think about storing all food, garbage and pet foods in bear-resistant containers or a hard-sided camper or vehicle. However, we don’t often consider the same for fishy clothes, line, tackle and scented items like sunscreen and toothpaste – all of these are attractants to bears.
Nor do we realize that coolers are not designed to be bear-resistant, and ropes and belts tied around coolers don’t help much. Captive bears that test coolers for bear-resistant certification often drag the coolers off and patiently try to find a way into them. A rope around a cooler does not stand the test.
So, move coolers into hard-sided campers or vehicles, bear boxes (when available), and keep camper and vehicle windows closed and locked while away. If you spend a lot of time camping at campgrounds, investing in a bear-resistant cooler is the way to go.
An inexpensive fix for the failure of the bear-resistant certification process to require locks to be included with the cooler is to purchase a couple of $0.40 bolts and nuts to secure the cooler. If tent camping, keep all attractants in bear-resistant containers, and never have them in a tent in which you are sleeping.
Anglers can further reduce the potential for bear conflicts by handling their fish carefully. Bears are attracted to wounded or flopping fish and fish remains. A bear that obtains fish from a person is more likely to approach people in the future.
If a bear is near enough to see or hear a fish splashing, stop fishing. If a bear shows up while you have a fish on the line, loosen your drag so it won’t splash or cut the line. Against all instincts, do not land the fish. There will be others to catch.
When you catch a fish, you can improve the quality of the meat and reduce the amount of blood as an attractant to bears. Immediately stun the fish you catch and then bleed it into the water by cutting its gills.
The black bear and cubs of my close encounter were likely attracted to the area by the remains of fish filleted in the field. Just downstream from this encounter, fish carcasses were stacked up in an eddy.
A good step toward reducing fish waste in places such as the Russian River, which bring lots of people into proximity to bears, is gutting and gilling fish at the river, carrying them out whole, and processing your fish in a place and manner that allows you to dispose of fish waste responsibly.
If you choose to fillet fish in the field, make sure that you do so in a location that will enable you to chop carcasses into small pieces and throw them into deeper, fast-moving waters. Doing so allows fish waste to be carried downstream by the current and makes it less likely to accumulate downstream in places that bring people and bears together.
It takes us all to break the cycle of rewarding bears with food, and my recent experience with fellow anglers on the river shows we are well on the way.
Kris Inman is the Supervisory Wildlife Biologist on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Find out more about refuge events, recreation, and more at kenai.fws.gov or Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge. To find more Refuge Notebook Articles go to https://www.fws.gov/kenai-refuge-notebook.