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Peninsula is also human-caused: development. The pending Pebble Mine project, poised near the headwaters of the Bristol Bay sockeye run, would result in an artificial lake created to trap poisons very near to Lake Iliamna, the major corridor for spawning-bed bound sockeyes. “Salmon are the main source of nutrient-rich fat that bears need for hibernation,” Coray said. “So the depletion of salmon as a result of failed containment of toxic mining poisons would directly affect the sustainability of bears to complete their natural life cycles.” The NPS also reported concerns that “copper is the most toxic element to aquatic life, and even at very low concentrations, it may affect a salmon’s ability to return to its spawning grounds.” For the bear populations at Lake Clark to remain healthy, the salmon runs must remain strong—and fisherman must avoid creating conflict with bears feeding close to shore.

Denali Denali wildlife biologist Pat Owen calls 2016 the summer from hell. “I was a mess,” she said. That June, a young bear approached a couple and the man threw his backpack away from him to divert the bear. The bear got a food reward. “The pack had candy bars and bottles of Pepsi,” Owen said. “The bear ate it all. Then he approached a group of three, likely searching for food. The bear got curious and sniffed and scratched a woman, not seriously, but now the bear had caused an injury.” They closed the Alpine Trail and Savage area and searched for the bear. In a situation where a bear has gotten a food reward by raiding a tent at a campground, the protocol is to close the area and send a team into the backcountry with a tent, acting like backpackers. “They cook something odiferous, drawing the bear to the area to see if they get a similar response. Then they give the bear a miserable experience he can remember and associate it with whenever he is in a similar situation again. They use a 12-gauge shotgun and pepper the bear with rubber slugs and bean bags. It’s a very


effective deterrent.” In this case though, the bear had been aggressive with humans and caused an injury, so they searched for him by helicopter and used baited culvert traps to try to catch him. Upon capture, the plan was to immobilize the bear, collar him, and once he recovered from the sedative, do a “hard release on-site.” A hard release meant opening the trap and bombarding the bear with firecrackers and bean bag shells, to make him traumatized enough to avoid the area in the future. But the bear disappeared. When he was finally located, the bear was severely injured and had to be euthanized. “The bear was half the weight it should’ve been, with a broken and infected leg. It’s the first time in my 30-year career that I’ve had to make that decision. It was tough on me, and tough on my staff,” said Owen. When asked the biggest difference between bear management in Katmai versus Denali, Owen said that bears tolerate humans in closer proximity in places like Katmai where they’re used to seeing large concentrations of people while enjoying a rich and plentiful food source of running salmon. In Denali, the food is much harder to find, and bears respond to humans at a farther distance. “They may also be more bold to try to get calories because they are food stressed.” The decades-old requirement for bear-proof containers in the backcountry keeps human-bear conflict at bay. “I inherited a finely tuned machine,” she said. “We just tweaked it here and there.” The other threats for Denali bears are hunting of the bears once they leave the park boundaries, and climate change. “Typically, bears don’t emerge from the dens until May 1,” Owen said. “On March 24, we saw a sow with two yearling cubs. This spring half the north side of Denali is snow-free.” Asked what the future holds, Owen said, “We’ll just continue to encourage and educate people how to live and recreate safely in bear country. We have to learn to co-exist.” Michelle Theall is the senior editor of Alaska magazine. See her bear photos from all three locations at


Park buses and private vehicles stop to watch a grizzly in Denali National Park.


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Profile for Cowboy Publishing Group

Alaska Magazine July 2019  

Alaska Magazine July 2019

Alaska Magazine July 2019  

Alaska Magazine July 2019