There'll be some changes in how bears and humans see each other along the Russian River this summer, starting with the bears' hair.
As part of an interagency effort to pacify a danger zone where hundreds of anglers daily mingle with bears expecting to dine on human leftovers, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game plans to make over several grizzlies in bright shades of drugstore hair dye. The idea behind yellow, green, orange or blue bears is to make them instantly recognizable to anyone who reports an encounter, area wildlife biologist Jeff Selinger said.
For public safety reasons, biologists have decided they need to kill bears that repeatedly intimidate people, he said, and making it easy for people to know exactly which bear they encounter may avoid any wrongful executions.
He and other biologists plan to tranquilize several bears that frequent the area, give them a shampoo, bleach the hair around their heads, shoulders and hindquarters, and then apply dye.
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"This is their only chance at surviving," Selinger said.
It's a tactic that he predicted would draw scorn from wildlife watchers, though he says the state agency is "not trying to embarrass these bears.''
Soldotna-based wildlife photographer John Toppenberg, director of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, groaned when he heard of the plan. "Who wants to take a picture of a clown bear?"
Toppenberg has photographed bears on the Russian but acknowledged it's not the best place to encourage bear-gazing, given the thousands of anglers who congregate there when the salmon are running. Still, he said, people come seeking wild Alaska, and for them, a punk-rock bear will spoil the memory and the digital snapshot.
DYING TO LIVE
The dye jobs are just one part of an aggressive new approach state and federal agencies hope will minimize potential conflicts between bears and humans along the Russian. They also want to reduce the food attraction for bears there while training people to be more bear-aware.
To help with the former, the state will install up to 10 hand-cranked carcass grinders on midstream platforms so anglers can return the nutrients in heads, bones and guts to the river without risking a pileup of bear-attracting carcasses.
With the carcass dumps gone, officials believe that over time the bears will stop viewing people as their providers and wander off to return to natural foraging grounds.
The U.S. Forest Service will enlist two seasonal protection officers to patrol the river and teach anglers about bear safety while ticketing those who move beyond arm's reach of their lunches or fish stringers. Some bears have begun to learn backpacks and stringers also provide easy pickings if they can simply shoo away the two-legged owners.
"Having a presence on the river is important," said Bobbi Jo Skibo, a Chugach National Forest employee coordinating the Russian River bear strategy for her agency, the state, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Kenaitze Indian Tribe.
"This is definitely a step up from what we've ever had," Skibo said.
Bears and crowds - never a good mix -have created tense moments in and around the confluences of the Kenai and Russian rivers in recent years. Many anglers bring guns, and last year one who felt threatened shot a bear.
In 2003, Girdwood resident Daniel Bigley barely escaped with his life after a bear bit him in the face. He was left blind and spent more than a year recovering from his injuries.
Mainly, though, it has been people killing or injuring bears and not the other way around.
Selinger said he has come to expect a bear-shooting every summer, often killing a mother raising her cubs. "Then you have orphaned cubs who only know one place to make a living,'' he said. "They hang out there and get shot or hit by cars."
The agencies hope their intensified efforts will gradually transform the Russian from an attractive food stop for bears passing through to just another stretch of water full of salmon hard for a bear to catch.
The Russian River's top angling spots aren't naturally good spots for bears to fish, Selinger said. They're broad, generally shallow and have few places where fish are funneled into pools or riffles. Bears should move on if the carcasses and sack lunches dry up on them.
"The idea is to break the cycle," Selinger said.
That part sounds good to Cooper Landing fly shop owner and guide Billy Coulliette of Alaska Troutfitters, although he worries forcing the bears to go cold turkey might provoke them into approaching more anglers in an effort to steal fish. Still, he figures the grinders are worth a try.
"It's not a bad idea, rather than having big piles of carcasses," he said. "You get 20, 30, 40 carcasses piled up below these cleaning tables and it's definitely easy food for them."
Coulliette is also pleased the Forest Service will add patrols, especially when so many anglers have started packing weapons.
"There's a lot more paranoia going on than traditionally there has been,'' he said. "Seeing those officers down there on a daily basis will ease those fears."
The bear dying, though, is "kind of ridiculous," Coulliette said. "It just makes the area look more like a circus show. It's already pretty crazy as it is, and now you've got bears running around that are purple. It's turning that river -- an awesome Alaskan experience -- into more of a theme park."
Coulliette said he understands the need to carefully monitor the bears, but believes something less intrusive might be in order. Biologists counter that they've tried using ear tags or collars in the past, but people often prove unable to identify the bears. After a traumatic bear encounter, humans usually don't even know if the bear had an ear tag, let alone what color, said state bear researcher Sean Farley.
"(But) people are coming up here to see natural beauty," Coulliette said. "Spray-painting them is kind of a disgrace to the animal when it's not his fault. Unfortunately there's hundreds and hundreds of intruders in his natural home."
HEY, BABY, GREAT HAIR
Toppenberg said he worries coloring the bears may alter their natural behavior.
"Would your interaction with your wife change if you dressed up like a clown?" he said. "Who knows? Maybe it would help."
A bear researcher from Utah State University said bold markings are not unprecedented, and they don't seem to affect bear behavior. Scientist Barrie Gilbert said researchers tracking Canada polar bears have tagged them with large black splotches with no noticeable effects.
"Polar bears aren't nearly as gregarious as brown bears are on (salmon) streams, but I think most of the communication in brown bears is in the faces, the snarling and growling," he said.
Gilbert has spent more than a quarter century studying grizzlies, and was himself badly mauled in Yellowstone National Park. He went on to study bears in Alaska's Katmai National Park during the late 1980s. He believes the state's plan for weaning the Russian River bears sounds plausible.
As long as salmon runs are healthy, he said, bears will find plenty of food on their own. If anglers can clean up their surroundings, the bears will learn new habits over time. He cautioned against expecting a rapid transition, though, because bears are opportunistic feeders who come back to check on a food supply's availability for years after it's gone.
Likewise, he counseled against undue fear of curious bears who start getting hungry when their food disappears. Unlike the bear that jumped him when he inadvertently surprised it on a mountaintop, he said, human-habituated bears tend to be calm.
"They don't get fed by people directly or punished by people directly, so they tend to tune us out," he said. "If people don't freak out and drop the fish," the bears should move on, he said.
Selinger said it's time to try to teach the bears a new routine, and to identify any real problem bears, before someone is hurt or killed.
"The situation now is not good," he said.