(THIS PAGE) LEFT: COURTESY NPS; MAIN: PATRICK J. ENDRES/ALASKAPHOTOGRAPHICS.COM (OPPOSITE PAGE) REBECCA ADAMS
Commercial salmon fishermen and juvenile brown bears clash near the mouth of the Johnson River in Lake Clark National Park along the west side of Cook Inlet. The bears have learned that a net set in shallow waters near shore makes for easy pickings, so they come running when a fishing boat approaches. On this particular day, the photographer watched the bear tangle its feet in the webbing while trying to grab a fish; the bear ended up tearing a hole in the net for its prize. One bear pilfered ensnared salmon multiple times before the fishermen moved the gear to deeper water.
September and approaching them within 50 yards while they are catching or eating salmon, or any other food source, is prohibited. Apparently, the man, along with two other people, used an emergency exit on the platform to gain river access. The group was located later at the bar, charges were brought, and the case is still pending. Park Superintendent Mark Strum said in a statement released by the park service that by entering the closed area, “These visitors are lucky that they escaped the situation without injury. The possible consequences for the bears and themselves could have been disastrous.” The number of visitors to Katmai’s Brooks Falls has almost doubled since 2009. Since that time, the park has remained consistent about educating people and those guiding them about maintaining safe distances and avoiding and discouraging close encounters. In turn, they’ve trained the bears to use specific paths to and from the river to feed. “We try to maintain travel corridors for bears so they can know where they are allowed to be, which helps us manage a camp space where we exclude them. This has led to bears continuing to use the river freely, but has led to some challenges with moving people,” Strum said. Bear jams, inconvenient times when visitors must wait to be escorted past stationary bears or for a bridge or path to reopen because of bear presence, are common occurrences. This year, the floating bridge at the lower platform has been replaced to increase the flow of traffic without disturbing bear activity. With these changes and continued public education, Strum hopes to “continue providing opportunities for people to see these amazing places and animals,” at Katmai.
Lake Clark Sounds of gunfire echo across the beach, alarming bears and
viewers nearby. It’s become a common soundtrack accompanying the lap of water on the shore and the mewling of nursing cubs along Cook Inlet. At Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, owner David Coray expressed concern about the safety of guides and guests in the immediate area. In 2015, a young female brown bear was wounded there by a commercial drift-netter. Alaska law states that bears can be destroyed in defense of life and property. Coray, a lifelong Alaskan who along with the NPS and ADF&G in 2002 helped establish the Best Bear-Viewing Practices, explained that fishermen seek to procure the salmon running directly along the shore and set their nets near a beach with a receding tide, which creates a shallow water dynamic where bears can easily access the salmon stuck in the net. “Commercial fishing operators, in order to safeguard their catch and their nets, often resort to aversive techniques,” Coray said, “such as shooting at the bears.” Bears in Lake Clark and Katmai are “acclimated bears,” meaning that for generations, they haven’t been hunted or fed by humans. They’ve learned that the creatures they see on two legs aren’t prey, a food source, competition for a mate, or a threat to their safety. This allows visitors to be on foot around the bears and intimately and safely view their day-to-day activities. If fishermen are allowed to haze or kill the bears with bullets, the bears may change their reaction to humans or migrate to other areas outside the park, effectively destroying the bear-viewing opportunities for tourists. Coray would like to see an “offshore policy” in certain areas, where nets would be required to be a certain distance from shore. For now, commercial fishermen in the area remain armed with rifles, and they are forceful in trying to move bears away from their nets. The other threat to bear safety and viewing on the Alaska JULY/AUGUST 2019 A L A S K A
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Alaska Magazine July 2019