By Jenny Neyman
Three weeks after seeing a brown bear shot by the side of the Sterling Highway near the Russian River Ferry, Jerry Holly said the incident is still eating at him, and he wants to know why the situation developed as it did.
“I’ve never seen such a fiasco in my life as this was. I don’t know what other words to use, other than just an absolute joke,” Holly said. “I have no trouble with hunting and I’m an avid hunter myself. But if that was hunting, I’m a jet pilot. That’s just absolutely ridiculous.”
Bruce Woods, a spokesman with the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife in Anchorage, said the incident is still under investigation, and he can’t release information about it until the investigation is concluded.
Holly, a contractor in Soldotna, said he couldn’t imagine how the situation didn’t violate some sort of regulation or law, considering the multiple threats to public safety involved.
Holly and his wife were driving to Cooper Landing the afternoon of Oct. 3. As they passed a bend in the highway bordering a treeless slope down to the Kenai River, they saw the area mobbed with people — cars parked along the side of the road and in a pull-off area just before the slope, and people with cameras standing along the guardrail looking down at the river.
Must be a bear, Holly figured. Being a longtime central Kenai Peninsula resident, since 1958, and an avid hunter and fisherman, he’s seen enough bears that he wasn’t motivated to stop and join the crowd. An hour and a half later, after shooting scenic pictures for a photography class assignment and picking up a Kenworth dump truck from a job site his construction company was working at in Cooper Landing, Holly and his wife headed back to Soldotna.
As they neared the same highway bend, they saw it still choked with people. An Alaska State Troopers car with two troopers was on the scene this time, attempting to manage traffic. Troopers motioned for traffic to stop, with Holly in the dump truck at the head of the mounting column of traffic in the left-hand lane, and his wife in the car behind him.
About 100 feet in front of him, people started backing up from the guardrail and heading for their cars.
“So I go, ‘Aha, here comes Mr. Bear,’” Holly said.
It was a good-sized, male brown bear, Holly said. Fish and Game has described it as a subadult male.
“He steps up on the road, looks over my direction and troopers’, looks at the people backing up. They decide to run. That triggered Mr. Bear and he goes about maybe 10 or 15 feet toward them, and I mean a bear can move. He was not going on no mission here, he just took off on a little bit of a gait,” Holly said.
The bear stopped, turned and walked back along the guardrail toward where Holly was parked, then turned and looked across the road at the 75- to 100-foot rocky slope leading up to tree line, Holly said. He started heading up the slope, and troopers turned on their siren, probably to encourage the bear to leave the area, Holly figured.
About that time, two hunters in camouflage carrying rifles came running along the guardrail from the pullout where traffic was parked.
Holly is a longtime rifle and bowhunter, a member of the National Rife Association and taught a youth competitive rifle club for nine years. He’s supportive of hunting, but was incredulous that these men were going to shoot under these conditions, he said.
“It was embarrassing to watch that, totally embarrassing. The ethics of a bowhunter are so much different than this. I mean, you don’t even take a shot unless you’re totally confident and sure that you’re going to place that arrow. And these guys are running and dropping a knee, and all these people, all these tourists and all these cameras around,” Holly said. “Anybody trying to get a shot off when you’re running and your heart’s pumping, it’s not only dangerous, it’s poor sportsmanship. I can’t think of enough adjectives to tell you what that does to your aim. You don’t want to be placing bad shots.”
Troopers were standing next to the hunters as they took aim at the bear, which had paused on the edge of tree line, Holly said.
“I thought maybe at this point that they had actually given them permission, or maybe they called for these guys. I was really amiss as to where these guys even came from,” Holly said. “They (troopers) certainly didn’t prevent these guys from dropping to a knee.”
Holly thought that maybe the bear had mauled someone. He said he couldn’t imagine why else troopers would allow the men to shoot at the bear in that situation, so close to the road and with at least 15 people standing around, he said.
“Not too sportsmanlike would have been an understatement,” Holly said. “And whap. It was bad enough and they shot him enough that I actually had to look away. I swear I did, I couldn’t watch it. It was that much of a joke to see these guys blasting this bear with high-powered rifles and all these people around. That’s not even remotely hunting. I don’t know the hell you call it, but it’s not hunting. Who would even want to put an animal away like that? For what reason? What would be so important that you’d have to shoot this bear?”
Holly said the bear was fired on at least three times while it was up the slope. It tumbled back down to the roadside.
“They were still firing on him, trying to get a shot in with him rolling. When that bear hits the ditch, my thought is, ‘This bear is going to be on his feet and is going to be coming for somebody.’ I mean, that’s a real bear story. That’s usually what happens next. They are running so much on adrenaline that I figured the bear was going to come get somebody. If that would have happened, it would have been ugly. There were a lot of tourists, older folks taking pictures that could never of even remotely outrun that bear,” Holly said.
With the bear lying, thrashing, in the ditch alongside the road, one of the men angled himself parallel to the highway and raised his rifle at the bear, which brought him in line with the vehicles stopped by troopers in the left-hand lane coming from Cooper Landing, Holly said. Being first in that line of vehicles, Holly said he opened his door to get out of the dump truck, fearful that a bullet may come toward the vehicles.
“The people behind me are even in a worse position than I am as far as being in line with his shooting,” Holly said.
The man instead stepped up toward the asphalt, facing the rock slope, to finish off the bear with a few more shots, the final one being to its head. Again, Holly said he had to look away.
“The part I guess that I’m flabbergasted at is that anybody would call that hunting. Anybody would get any satisfaction out of shooting an animal that way. There were kids in those cars seeing this go on; there was endangerment of people on the highway. I know what a bullet does when it blows apart — fragments of it go every which way. That’s a rock slope. You could ricochet off of that. There’s many ways that there could have been endangerment of the people that were there,” Holly said.
As soon as the bear was dead, troopers got in their car and pulled ahead into the pullout to let cars go by, Holly said, leaving traffic to navigate around the bear carcass, lying maybe 4 feet beyond the white line of the road, Holly said.
He’s been stewing about the situation ever since. Holly said he’s tried contacting the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to talk to someone about it, but hasn’t gotten a response back. Woods, with Fish and Wildlife Service, said the department isn’t commenting on the incident until the investigation is complete.
“I’m not trying to get anybody in trouble. I’m not tying to get the troopers in trouble. That’s not my mission here. I’m speaking for the bear. I don’t think this was right,” Holly said.
He questions the ethics of shooting a bear that was clearly accustomed to people in the first place. Holly said he’s heard from people since the shooting that the bear was a common sight around Cooper Landing, often found playing in pools or lounging along the riverbank, not seeming too concerned when people stop to watch and photograph it.
The bear did cause a hazardous situation with traffic, Holly said, but he didn’t think allowing it to be shot so close to the road and so close to traffic and bystanders was appropriate. That area is a common spot for bears and people in the summer, both drawn to the abundance of salmon at the confluence of the Russian and Kenai rivers. Troopers, Fish and Game and U.S. Fish and Wildlife should have a better protocol for handling situations like this, Holly said.
“They need to re-circle and get around a table and figure out a better way of responding to a situation like this. This isn’t going to be the last time this happens, and probably wasn’t the first time. It probably just didn’t go to a shoot-out before,” Holly said. “You can’t tell me that’s the first time people gathered to watch that bear and people thought about shooting it but didn’t shoot it. You don’t even think twice about endangering people with firearms. That’s what gets me, why they didn’t put a stop to it immediately.”
Shooting from on or across a roadway violates state Fish and Game regulations. Holly said he wasn’t watching whether the shooter was standing on asphalt or not, but questions the intent of the regulation. That corner is a tight spot, with no more than 4 feet from the edge of the pavement to the slope on which the bear was shot.
“I would call that entire area roadway. He’s on that foreslope of that road. He may not be on the asphalt, but he’s on the road. Whether he’s on asphalt or not is almost immaterial because it’s so tight right there in that curve,” Holly said.
Troopers stationed in Cooper Landing, who were on scene at the shooting, said the hunters had a valid hunting permit, and they didn’t intervene in the shooting because they didn’t want to violate the hunter harassment law, which restricts anyone from impeding a hunter participating in a lawful hunt.
That section of highway, from the east entrance to Skilak Lake Road to the Russian River Ferry area, is covered by a federal regulation forbidding the discharge of firearms within a quarter mile of the highway, on either side of it.
Jeff Selinger, Fish and Game area wildlife biologist, said the quarter-mile shooting restriction isn’t included in the state hunting regulations booklet, since it’s a federal regulation, but that hunters who are awarded a brown bear permit for that area — there were three permits available this year — are given a letter they must sign and carry with them stating they have checked all the rules and regulations that apply to the area they’re permitted for.
A sign stating it is a violation to discharge firearms within a quarter mile of the highway was erected last week at the east entrance to Skilak Lake Road, about Mile 58. Another is planned soon near the Russian River Ferry. But the refuge said those signs have been planned for about a year and are not being erected in response to the bear shooting.
Ken Hepner, of Soldotna, said he had a brown bear permit last year for the Mystery Creek Road to Johnson Pass Trail area, and north of the Sterling Highway to Turnagain Arm. He said Selinger called and told him about the quarter-mile shooting restriction.
“He told me in no uncertain terms he didn’t want any hunting near roads or campgrounds or any other places where people might be,” Hepner said.
Selinger said he doesn’t remember the circumstances of that particular call, since he gets so many a year, and isn’t sure whether he was answering a call or returning one. But it is not his protocol to call every hunter with a permit for that area and warn them of federal regulations.
“We’ve got so many rules and regulations, that’s all I would do,” Selinger said.
It’s hunters’ responsibility to make sure they know what rules apply where, he said.
“Those are the federal regulations, so I don’t want to misspeak and give a wrong interpretation of what the federal regulations are. That would be incumbent on the hunter to look into that themselves,” Selinger said. “But that’s the difficulty, when you have different agencies managing land differently, you get a lot of confusion in regulations on what you can or can not do. The animals don’t know the difference between the refuge border and state borders, but the hunters need to know that. Most of them are aligned, but there are subtle differences and there are closed areas around the refuge, so they need to be aware of that when they’re hunting on the Kenai.”
But even if that was a legal place to hunt, Selinger questions the ethics of doing so with a crowd of people watching.
“It’s not a good idea if you have an audience in front of you. This is all about promoting this as an acceptable activity. You have some people who are against hunting, they don’t believe in it, and you have people who are ardent hunters, who really believe in it, and probably the bulk of the populace is somewhere in the middle. And you don’t want to portray hunting in a bad light in front of the public,” Selinger said. “The biggest thing is, when you’re out engaged in legal hunting activities, you need to use good judgment. Even if it may be legal to harvest an animal in a specific area, you need to use proper judgment so you do not portray hunting in a negative fashion. Hunting is a privilege, and it’s something that should be taken seriously, and it’s something that we want to promote and have in the future.”