By Jenny Neyman
Joseph Wicker said he regrets shooting a brown bear in front of onlookers by the side of the Sterling Highway just past the Russian River ferry on Oct. 3, and the uproar his actions have caused.
“I guess if anything’s said, that’s the biggest thing — I’m deeply sorry for everything that’s come of this, and it wasn’t my intention to just run up and blast the bear,” Wicker said.
Wicker, 24, of Soldotna, was one of three Kenai Peninsula residents drawn for a DB305 brown-bear hunt permit this year in the Kenai Mountains and Mystery Hills, open Sept. 15 to Nov. 30 and April 1 to June 15.
He and a hunting buddy were just getting off the trail from a long hike in the mountains looking for bear on the afternoon of Oct. 3.
“We weren’t out road hunting. We’d been out the past couple days hiking through the mountains and we didn’t see any,” Wicker said. “We saw plenty of signs and the weather turned not so great up in the mountains, so we came down and we were going to go regroup and plan our next day when we came across all the people.”
They were driving the Sterling Highway when they saw a crowd of people along the side of the road at a treeless bend of the Kenai River just west of the Russian River confluence. The people had been watching and photographing a subadult brown bear that had been down at the river, and was now coming up the bank to the highway.
Wicker parked with other cars in a turnoff, and he and his friend got out of the vehicle.
“We’d gotten out of the car and were walking down the road and we heard people yelling and the people that were taking pictures were running down the road with the bear running behind them. And then it crossed the road, and it was at that point we decided to shoot it, because we thought the troopers were going to kill it,” Wicker said.
Two Alaska State Troopers were on the scene to manage traffic and control what was becoming an increasingly chaotic situation, with people parking, standing and walking on the road. The bear was climbing a gravel embankment across the highway from the river, and paused just below tree line. Wicker shot the bear and it rolled down the embankment to the side of the road, where he finished it off.
Witnesses who had stopped to watch the bear, and who were waiting in vehicles stopped by troopers on the highway, have since expressed outrage over the incident, saying it was disrespectful to the people there watching the bear — some of them children — unfair to the bear, as well as unsafe for everyone involved.
Wicker said he didn’t intend for any of that to be the case.
“It wasn’t at all my intention to offend a bunch of people and I definitely know now, looking back, that wasn’t the greatest idea. I guess the biggest thing I just want to say is, to those people that witnessed it, I am extremely sorry about that. And especially the hunting community, because that’s really all it did was give a big black eye to hunting. And then a lot of people are dragging Fish and Game and all these other people into it, and that wasn’t at all my intention. It just blew into this gigantic thing.”
Wicker has winced at some of the comments made about him, that he let adrenaline take over or that he laughed off witnesses’ protests of him shooting the bear.
“It wasn’t an adrenaline reaction to seeing the bear. I’d say it was more of a concern, with the people running down the road yelling with the bear behind them. I thought, ‘Oh, wow, here we go, people are about to get mauled,’” he said. “And that was the thing, you know, had it gone the other way, people would have been yelling at the troopers for not shooting the bear. I don’t know. I think it just could have gone either way, depending on how it played out.”
Wicker said he’s also sorry that troopers, Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have become targets of people’s anger over his actions. To put one rumor to rest, troopers did not call him to come shoot the bear, he said. It was just coincidence that he happened to be driving by.
Troopers also checked his paperwork on the scene, and saw no legal reason to restrict him from shooting. The bear was legal to hunt, it was in the designated hunt area, Wicker had the proper permit, and he wasn’t standing on the road when firing or shooting across it. Interfering with a legal hunt is a violation of state law in itself.
“That’s the terrible thing about it. They’re getting drug into this terrible light when really, I don’t think they did anything wrong,” he said.
Trooper investigation following the shooting revealed that Wicker did not have a locking tag, as required by state law. He was subsequently charged with taking a brown bear or musk ox without possessing the appropriate tag, and failure to affix tag. Wicker was fined for failing to have the tag, and the failure to affix tag charge was dropped.
Those charges were filed in Seward on Oct. 8. Trooper Ken Acton said it is routine to file charges coming from that area of the peninsula in Seward District Court, rather than Kenai District Court.
The stretch of Sterling Highway on which the shooting occurred, from the Russian River to the east Skilak Lake Road entrance, is covered by a federal regulation restricting the discharge of firearms within a quarter mile of either side of the highway. Wicker has been cited for violating that restriction, but said he didn’t know about the regulation at the time.
“The state regs say, in that area, that you cannot discharge a firearm in there in June and July, so outside of that, then, per the state regulations, you’re OK,” he said.
Wicker said that, as a hunter, it is ultimately his responsibility to check all regulations relating to the area he is hunting in. It just didn’t occur to him to do so, he said.
“The only thing that kind of got me is, if the state will say it’s closed in June and July, and it’s closed federally year-round, why wouldn’t it just state in the state regs that it’s closed to shooting there, period? Not just in the month of June and July?” Wicker said. “I wasn’t aware of it until I’d gone to Fish and Game on Monday (Oct. 5), to have the bear sealed that he was like, ‘Well, you know you were in a federal no-discharge zone,’ and I was like, ‘No, it’s not in the state regs.’ He’s like, ‘Well it’s a federal reg, and it’s not in the state regulations.’”
Wicker said troopers did not inform him of the restriction, but he suspects they weren’t aware of it, either.
“I don’t think they were aware of it because, at the time, there were no signs there. But once you go past there they have the Skilak Loop Road hunting restriction signs. I mean, just about everywhere else it’s clearly marked,” Wicker said.
Following the shooting, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge has installed a sign near the east end of Skilak Lake Road identifying the no-shooting restriction, although the refuge has said the sign — and another they intended to install near the Russian River Ferry — had been planned for about a year and was not in response to the bear shooting.
Trooper Acton said troopers don’t enforce federal regulations, and it’s the hunter’s responsibility to be aware of them.
Jeff Selinger, area biologist with Fish and Game, said enforcement isn’t Fish and Game’s main priority, and federal regulations aren’t their domain at all. He said he was not aware of the state charges brought against Wicker in Seward.
“No, I’m not. It’s not a case that we’re handling at all,” Selinger said. “… We do have some regulatory authority to enforce certain regulations, but our main purpose is not to be out doing law enforcement activities. There are other people who are trained, and that’s their profession. We’re biologists and managers and researchers, that’s what Fish and Game does. When it gets to law enforcement, we’re pretty much ancillary relative to those other entities. That doesn’t mean we don’t get engaged with it, we do to a certain level, but it’s not our specialty.”
Wicker said that he fears the incident will cast Fish and Game, public safety and law enforcement agencies in a bad light, and doesn’t think that is fair. It was his action, and investigators and law enforcement didn’t do anything wrong, he said.
“The biggest thing is I wasn’t proud of how it happened, you know what I mean? It wasn’t like a lot of people were saying, ‘Oh my goodness, he’s one of the boys out there telling the story,’” Wicker said. “It was good intentions that, I guess, ended up not being the best of intentions, or ended up not being the best result.”
Editor’s note: Bruce Woods, a spokesman with the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife in Anchorage, did not return a call seeking information for this story.