View Full Version : If you think YOU'RE worried about bears...

08-22-2006, 08:04 AM
Check out this article from today's Wall Street Journal:

Fishermen Love
Alaska's Bird Creek,
But So Do Grizzlies

August 22, 2006

BIRD CREEK, Alaska -- Just 25 minutes by car from downtown Anchorage, Bird Creek is one of Alaska's most popular salmon-fishing destinations. Nestled at the base of the Chugach Mountains and lined by spruce and fir trees, the creek is so well-liked that fishermen coined the phrase "combat fishing" to describe the dozens of anglers who stand cheek by jowl in the glacial runoff letting loose their hooks and lines.

For years, people who fished here were unmolested by local wildlife, which is not the case in many other parts of Alaska. Bears stayed away, possibly spooked by the number of people who visited the area. Animals also seemed to be put off by all the cars on the adjacent Seward Highway, which connects Anchorage to Seward.

A grizzly at Bird Creek, outside Anchorage, Alaska, in July.
That changed this summer, making Bird Creek a flashpoint in a bear resurgence across the U.S. In the past few weeks, grizzlies and black bears have started sneaking behind anglers, making off with Hefty bags and fishing lines filled with salmon. In one recent incident, two bears sauntered down, grabbed a tourist's backpack and calmly returned to the woods. On another occasion, a grizzly wandered around nonchalantly, scaring an angler into dropping his catch just a few feet from the parking lot.

Now non-fishing tourists hoping to see real grizzlies in the wild are also flocking to Bird Creek. That is causing traffic jams and is filling the area's 160-car parking lot, in scenes reminiscent of the 1960s when people fed the bears in Yellowstone National Park. Greg Wilkinson, spokesman for the Alaska State Troopers, says he's worried that things will get out of hand. "This has all the makings of trouble," he notes.

Drew Rigdon, 32, had just caught his first fish in Alaska on the evening of Aug. 1 when two grizzlies lumbered out of the woods toward him. He walked in the other direction, but the bears cut him off. "A ranger across the creek yelled, 'You need to drop the fish,' and I did and ran to safety," recalls Mr. Rigdon, a computer technician who recently moved to Anchorage from Oklahoma.

Alaska is full of bear stories, but Bird Creek is unusual for the sudden arrival of the bears and their sheer brazenness. The chaos has sparked tales of close encounters and has pitted fishermen against one another. The commotion comes as a bear uprising takes place in the lower 48 states, with some of the animals invading houses, garages and even swimming pools. At Lake Tahoe, a black bear recently sashayed into the MontBleu Resort Casino & Spa in Nevada, causing a stir before leaving without hurting anybody.

Wildlife biologists attribute such bold behavior to a rise in bear populations nationally, as well to encroaching development pushing ever deeper into the woods. Although only about 1,000 grizzlies remain in the lower 48 states, Alaska is home to a thriving population that biologists estimate at as many as 30,000. Like other critters, bears grow accustomed to being around people, and start finding it easier to scarf up leftovers in a Dumpster than to forage in the wild.

Some speculate the bears have returned to Bird Creek for the prospect of an easy meal, with already-caught fish lying around by the dozen. "It's much easier to patrol the bank and have people throw fish at you," says Rick Sinnott, a wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "They're very smart when it comes to food."

Biologists say sometimes the problem is caused by young bears scrounging for food in people-infested areas as they search for a territory and try to figure out how to feed themselves. But older bears can also get used to human food.

No one seems to have been injured in these incidents. Alaska state troopers say that until the calls started tapering off a few days ago, they had been responding to complaints almost every day for more than a month from fishermen and bystanders spooked by the furry encounters.

On the evening of July 26, Alaskan State Trooper Ronald Hayes says he was called to investigate a showdown between two fishermen. According to witnesses, Mr. Hayes says, a fisherman on one side of the creek fired three shots into the air from his .50-caliber handgun to scare a lurking grizzly. Another fisherman on the opposite side of the creek complained that the fellow shouldn't fire a gun with so many people around. In response, the gunman said, "I've got one of those [bullets] with your name on it," Mr. Hayes said, citing an audio recording of the incident made by a witness.

The trooper confiscated the pistol briefly, but didn't press charges. He says he doesn't blame the fisherman for popping off a few warning shots, adding that it's a bit worrisome that the bear didn't flinch at the sound. "One swipe from one of those bears, and you're done," Mr. Hayes says.

Visitors these days certainly get fair warning that they are entering bear country. A sign posted at the creek's entrance warns: "If the bear shows interest in you and/or approaches, it wants your stuff. If the bear is slobbering, huffing, jaw-popping, hop-charging, you are in serious danger."

On a recent afternoon, tension filled the cool mountain air as about four dozen anglers crowded a 200-yard stretch of the rushing stream. A grizzly estimated at 300 pounds had gone on a rampage a few hours earlier, snatching fish and a backpack from 34-year-old Kristi Williams. Mrs. Williams says she had been minding her own business sitting on the creek bank with her Labrador, Saxon.

"Saxon started growling, and I looked up and the bear walks down about 10 feet away," says Mrs. Williams, a nurse from Anchorage whose husband, Alan, was fishing at the time. "He wasn't scared of people at all." She adds she backed away with her dog and left her backpack and a line of two salmon to the bear. The bear gobbled up the fish. Then he tore open the backpack and sank his teeth into a container of yogurt, as well as a can of deodorant. "At least now he smells nice," she says.

Mrs. Williams was telling her story when her eyes widened and she whispered, "There he is." A darkish brown grizzly emerged from the woods, about 30 yards away. Mrs. Williams's husband stood his ground on a gravel island but glanced nervously at the bear. The grizzly eventually moved along upstream, where he put on a display of his own fishing prowess.

A few days later, authorities got a report of bears invading tents at a nearby campground, prompting closure of tent camping in the vicinity. While officials aren't sure how many bears there are, the common view is that there are about six of them.

Whatever reason they're here, officials say they may have to end up destroying some bears for the public's safety. Biologists say bears that become habituated to humans usually won't go back to finding food on their own. That would be a shame, wildlife biologist Mr. Sinnott says, because it's usually people's fault that bears get their food. In the case of Bird Creek, he says fishermen accosted by bears should release their catch back into the creek rather than surrender fish to the bears.

"The solution," contends Mr. Sinnott, "is to fix the fishermen."

08-22-2006, 10:13 AM
Bet most people don't like the "solution"!

And the interplay between the two fishermen over the gunshots is classic. A perfect example of intelligence and reason at work.

Daniel Eagan
08-22-2006, 11:29 AM
The picture accompanying the article was amazing (it's on the front page so you can cop a look at a newstand or library or from someone else's copy): a tricked-out fisherman covered with gear standing right next to a grizzly, both of them looking into a pool for the next strike.

08-22-2006, 02:42 PM
Here's a copy of the picture

08-22-2006, 03:07 PM
I foresee a dead bear or two in the near future. :(

08-22-2006, 05:32 PM
We witnessed this same scene in July along the Kenai River in Alaska ... wall to wall salmon fishermen (fisherpeople?), a la Pulaski New York, with bears frequenting the water for the same fish. We took pictures of two 'teenage' bears along the riverbank ... people were fishing within 20 feet of them. We found out later that their mother had been shot and killed by a salmon fisherman two weeks earlier because the mother had tried to go after his 'catch'. Hmmmm ... fish just lying there, ready to be taken, or does the bear go out into the river and try and catch the salmon ... what do you think the bear thought she'd do?