By Joseph Robertia
While there have been numerous negative encounters between bears and humans in the Anchorage area, on the Kenai Peninsula problems with bears have been few and far between this season — until last week, when children in a summer program got a firsthand lesson on bear behavior.
“It was amazing. We got nearly a half an hour with him,” said Katherine Quelland, an individual service provider with Central Peninsula Community Services.
“We were coming back from hiking the Kenai River Overlook Trail, where we hadn’t seen any bears or signs of bears, just lots of mosquitoes,” she said.
But while driving the 19-mile gravel road that winds back to the Sterling Highway, they noticed a couple of cars pulled over not far past, fittingly enough, the Bear Mountain trailhead. Drivers and passengers were watching a young, 2- to 3-year-old black bear that had appeared from out of the woods.
“It didn’t approach the cars at all, but it seemed interested in us. It came right up to us. It was searching the van and seemed to be sticking around waiting for something,” Quelland said.
With a van load of children, it was imperative to model appropriate behavior around the bruin, and Quelland said she and the other adults instructed the kids on what to do and what not to do. Then they just sat back and enjoyed the natural spectacle.
“They were really excited, so we told them to keep their voices down and stay in their seats to watch it, and it worked out that everyone got to see it because it came around all sides of the van,” she said. “It came very close. It put its paws on the van and got up and looked in the windows. It was totally comfortable with it all and at no time did it act aggressive.”
Quelland said the bear even seemed to play its version of hide-and-seek with the van.
“At one point it seemed to play peek-a-boo. He’d run behind a tree, peek out, then go behind it again. It was very playful,” she said.
The bear delighted the spectators for about 20 to 30 minutes before moving on.
“After it realized it wasn’t getting anything it went back into the woods,” Quelland said.
While the group enjoyed what, that day, was more full-on bear watching than a mere bear sighting, Jeff Selinger, with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said the spectacle was rarer than they realized.
“Seeing a bear do something like that is an exception, it’s definitely not the norm, even in that area,” he said.
Since it is so atypical for a bear to approach a van load of people, Selinger suspected this may not have been the young bear’s first interaction with people, but perhaps its previous interactions were not with people as conscientious as Quelland and her group.
“It sounds suspicious to me,” he said. “Bears at this time should be feeding on dandelions, skunk cabbage, new shoots and carrion. For it to approach a carload of people like that, my take on it is someone may have been feeding that bear.”
If this is the case, not only could the person or party be fined in excess of $300 and potentially be charged with a misdemeanor offense for intentionally feeding or attracting wildlife, but that person also jeopardizes the life of the bear and the safety of others because feeding bears reinforces an association between humans and food.
“Even if they do it and get away with it, that bear will eventually get bolder and will likely eventually threaten or injure someone in an attempt to get food,” he said. “That’s why a fed bear is a dead bear.”
Selinger wasn’t just quoting a bumper sticker, either. Already this year two brown bears — one male and one female — have been shot on the Kenai Peninsula in defense of life and property.
“Both were back in May. One was getting into chickens down on East End Road (in Homer) and the other was in Copper Landing, shot after it kept getting into garbage left on people’s porches,” Selinger said.
Other than these incidents, Selinger said it’s been a fairly quiet year for bear activity.
“We’ve just had a few reports from the Russian River area. There are a few sows up there, each with a pair of yearling cubs,” he said.
While Quelland couldn’t say for certain what drew the bruin to her group’s van that day, they didn’t give the bear any food or do anything to encourage its behavior. They just watched it responsibly, and used the sighting as a teachable moment for explaining to the kids how to correctly interact with nature.
“The kids listened and did great,” she said. “They weren’t scared at all. They thought seeing it was way cool, and now they can’t wait to get out for next week’s hike.”