Bear Woes? The Solution is Gunfire
Want a way to deal with the bears raising Cain on the Russian River?

Mike Doogan / Comment / Anchorage Daily News / July 25, 2003


Kill them.

Yeah, I know. They're only being bears. But that's what makes them dangerous. By not dealing effectively with that danger, state and federal officials are making a bad situation worse. Reacting to the presence of the bears, more fishermen are going armed to the state's most popular red salmon fishery. Add the threat of misdirected bullets to the danger of teeth and claws, and you're talking about real combat fishing.

One hundred years ago, there wouldn't have been so many bears. People ate them, and killed them pre-emptively to keep them out of gardens, cabins and fish-drying racks.

Fifty years ago, there wouldn't have been so many bears because there were no bear sanctuaries, there was plenty of hunting and bears would still steer clear of people.

Thirty years ago, the Department of Fish and Game would have killed the bears after the first mauling. A few misguided wildlife enthusiasts would have moaned, and that would have been that.

Today, the official program is to close the river to human fishing at night. The theory seems to be that if humans stick to the day shift, bears will take the night shift and everybody will be fine, except the salmon.

Maybe. But I wouldn't want to be the first human fisherman down on the river in the morning. The risk of stumbling over some bear sacked out on the bank is too high. And what if some bear's watch stops, and he shows up for the wrong shift?

Like many people born and raised here, my attitude toward wildlife is basically live and let live. I was brought up to believe that there were only two justifiable reasons to kill a wild animal: You were going to eat it or it was going to eat you.

So these people who whine that the government should kill off predators to make their hunting easier leave me cold.

But the Russian River bears are a different proposition. They are a direct threat to human life now, and a long-term problem in the making. Some of the bears enjoying the hospitality of the lower river are sows with cubs. They are teaching their young to fish there, and to not be afraid of humans.

In fact, some of the young bears seem to have learned that they can avoid the trouble of fishing altogether by mugging humans for their catch.

Some of those bears are likely to be back next year. How do you think that's going to work?

Now, if you don't want to see these bears killed, here's an alternative.

The theory is that the bears now on the lower river have been run off the upper river by a few, big, selfish male bears that are not nearly as finicky about spilling bear blood as we humans have gotten.

So wildlife managers could kill those bears, and then try to herd the other bears back up the river.

This approach is attractive because the big, old bears are not nearly as cute as the cubs that would inevitably have to be killed on the lower river.

But it may be too late to try this, now that the bears have their own officially sanctioned fishing periods on the lower river. Why would the bears want to move? Fish and wildlife officials are doing everything but opening cans of tuna for them.

Many things have changed in Alaska on my watch. Perhaps the most amazing to me is the shift in attitudes toward wilderness and wild animals.

The idea that land in its natural state is superior to developed land is baffling enough. But a spruce forest is no more likely to kill you than a plowed field.

Wild animals are another matter entirely. When I was growing up, most Alaskans had first-hand knowledge of wildlife. We killed them and ate them, but we didn't underestimate them. That was particularly true of bears. We didn't try to coexist with them. Too iffy. A confrontation with a bear resulted in a dead bear.

Nowadays, though, most people see their bears on the Nature Channel. Or they do their bear viewing in controlled settings. They see bears as some form of entertainment, rather than danger. To them, killing a bear is an outrage, like killing a big, furry action figure.

Well, if that's the dominant sentiment now, here's another alternative. Close the Russian River to human fishing. Make it a bear-viewing sanctuary.

Just quit trying to split the difference. Somebody else is going to get hurt.

Mike Doogan's opinion column appears each Tuesday, Friday and Sunday. Reach him at 257-4350 or

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