A bear behaving naturally on the river. (Photo by Colin Canterbury/ USFWS)

A bear behaving naturally on the river. (Photo by Colin Canterbury/ USFWS)

Refuge Notebook: Keeping it wild while fishing, camping on Refuge

Sliding one foot in front of another, we crossed the Russian River; our quest for the day was not fishing but checking on terrestrial invasive plants that lined the stream bank. Some fisherman called out to us, letting us know a bear and her cubs were spotted upriver from us, the direction we were headed.

We crossed back over, pushing against the current and giving a wide berth to the bears. We would hear two more times of anglers seeing a bear where we were going. But we did not.

I couldn’t help but be disappointed to not see one from a safe distance across the river. I imagine that the desire we have to see bears today is, in part, why a family of bears, our second of the summer season, is in jeopardy based on their and our nature.

Most people enjoy seeing bears, usually at a distance. Sometimes, others might toss a bear some food to keep the bear around to capture that perfect picture. Most of us might not think twice about leaving food out on the picnic table or cleaning and throwing our fish carcasses down the river.

But bears are opportunistic. They will feed on the most accessible food source. With fishermen catching and cleaning salmon, carcasses float downstream and stack up in slow eddies along the riverbank. The consistent carcasses in the eddies become a major attractant to bears. It is much harder to catch a live fish.

From there, bears get accustomed to being near people — we call this habituated. Problems can arise when habituated bears find other human-generated attractants.

Unattended backpacks with lunches give a bear another relatively easy food reward. Fish stringers too far from the angler provide space for a bear to approach and get your hard-caught fish. With each of these opportunities, bears are rewarded with food, begin associating people with food and become food conditioned.

As they continue receiving repeated food rewards from us or our fishing neighbors beside us, they regularly “hang around” people on the river or at campsites. They begin a habit of focusing on food people might provide, and less on the fish in the river. Before long, they become bolder and start approaching anglers on the bank or at the fish cleaning tables.

Some people, like us, look forward to seeing a bear on the river, but not so close up. Others see bears at the fish table and toss them a chunk of fish, much like the seagulls waiting nearby.

But feeding bears puts them on a path of being so bold around people that they can become dangerous. As they begin associating people with food, they eventually get emboldened around people. They will try to get into cars, campers or tents, or charge people while fishing. And that’s when their and our nature come into conflict.

Preventing food-conditioning of bears reduces potential for human-bear conflicts, and multiple agencies working at the Russian River focus on educating the public on best practices.

Rangers and Stream Watch volunteers talk to the anglers, reminding them to take fish out whole and to keep backpacks and stringers close. Food storage regulations are in place, which when complied with ensure that bears don’t have access to human-generated foods and other attractants.

There are a few things that you can do to make sure our nature of enjoying bears and their nature of seeking easily attainable food does not put us on a path toward conflict when we share the river and campgrounds with bears.

1) Remove the fish whole and clean your fish at home. To reduce the smells and odor in your trash cans, and avoid attracting bears at home, put all fish carcasses in a garbage bag and freeze before trash day.

2) Avoid cleaning fish on the river; if you do, STOP, CHOP AND THROW. Whole salmon carcasses are more likely to back up in eddies along the river and provide a smorgasbord for bears.

3) If you do use the fish cleaning table, if you see a bear nearby, this would be a good day to take your fish out whole, and clean and fillet your fish at home.

While fishing:

1) Keep your backpack within 3 feet of you at all times.

2) Your fish stringer must be kept at least 12 feet or closer to you.

3) Bears are attracted to splashing fish; if a bear approaches when you have a fish on the line, put slack on your line, or cut the line and let the current take the fish away from the bear.

Being smart around bears doesn’t stop on the river. If you are staying in U.S. Forest Service or Kenai National Wildlife Refuge campgrounds, be knowledgeable of and comply with all food storage regulations.

1) Never leave food unattended on picnic tables when you are finished.

2) Store food in a locked car or bear-resistant coolers with a lock. For less than 25 cents, a bolt and nut work to lock the cooler, as well as a $40 bicycle lock from the cooler manufacturer.

3) Secure trash in a locked car or bear-resistant trash can or dumpster.

4) Store waders and coats that may have fishing odors in your locked car.

5) NEVER feed bears.

Many of us might spend a week or a few days on the river or in the campgrounds, and it seems hard to believe that our short time will matter. However, each angler or camper that provides a food reward builds on one another and puts bears on a path.

We can stop that process.

While previous events show us that emboldened behavior of charging fishermen, breaking into cars, and not moving away when hazing means there is no turning the bear’s habituation around, it has been proven if you remove a food source that can be an associated with people — unattended food, trash, fish stringers and backpacks — before bears become habituated, bears will move on and look for the next easiest food source. Food sources such as salmon spawning in the river, or berries and grasses in the forest.

It takes each of us to practice these steps; while you might only be on the river or in the campground for a short time, each time a bear receives a food reward, it becomes food conditioned.

This increases the risk to public safety, and almost inevitably, does not end well for the bear. If each of us practiced these steps, our experiences on the river would be more of one where bears are fishing for live fish at a distance. Now that would be truly WILD!

Kris Inman is the supervisory wildlife biologist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. She studied black bears for nearly a decade and has spent more years working with communities to be bear-smart. She looks forward to the day when the articles on bears and people are one in which we share more positive stories of experiences and sees that being bear smart is a natural part of what we do when recreating and living in wild areas. You can find more information about bear safety at https://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=livingwithbears.main or about the Refuge at http://kenai.fws.gov or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge. Also, look for Refuge Notebook Articles on the first and third Fridays of each month or Find past Refuge Notebook articles (1999–present) at https://www.fws.gov/kenai-refuge-notebook.

A brown bear cub “catches” a salmon carcass. (Photo by C. Canterbury/USFWS)

A brown bear cub “catches” a salmon carcass. (Photo by C. Canterbury/USFWS)

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