By Joseph Robertia
As campgrounds begin to fill up and more people take to the outdoors this summer, interactions with wildlife are increasing. The results are not always favorable. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has recorded three human-caused mortalities of brown bears so far this season.
The first was a male shot in Soldotna on May 6 after it was reported to be attempting to kill a dog in an outdoor pen. Although, said Larry Lewis, a wildlife technician with Fish and Game, the shooter did say, “There may have been some dog food left in there overnight.”
The other two deaths are the end of a chain reaction of events that began in Sterling on May 13. A hunter made some errors while attempting to legally hunt brown bears, Lewis said.
“This person had a permit, but they were in the wrong permit area and they shot a sow with a cub — which may or may not have been known,” Lewis said.
The sow was illegally harvested, and will count in the tally of human-caused mortalities of bears for the year. Human-caused mortalities can also include bears hit by vehicles, euthanized by Fish and Game, or those shot in defense of life or property, also known as DLP deaths. The May 6 shooting in Soldotna has been classified as a DLP kill.
In the May 13 incident, the cub left behind was a roughly 200-pound, year-old male, rather than a small cub of the year, which is a possible reason the hunter may not have realized it was related to the mother bear. Fearing the orphan may still not be old enough to feed naturally, Fish and Game set out to capture and relocate the animal.
“We set out a live trap, got it, collared it and moved it, and it immediately came right back,” Lewis said.
The bear showed up in the Skilak Recreational Area the weekend before the weekend of the Memorial Day holiday, where it began raiding campsites and knocking over unsecured coolers.
“Improperly stored food attractants aggravated this situation,” Lewis said.
That Friday, May 20, Lewis trapped and relocated the bear a second time.
“We took it as far out in the (Kenai National Wildlife) Refuge as we could,” he said.
But by the next day it was back. This time, on May 21, the cub paid a late-night visit to central peninsula residents Molly Dischner and Karen Garcia, who were camping near the shoreline of Skilak Lake.
“We were having s’mores by the fire after midnight,” Dischner said. “We heard a noise so we got quiet and looked around. We could see a bear between us and the lake.”
The bear was so close the two retreated to their vehicle for safety and had little time to take anything with them. They opted to try to spook the animal away, but the situation didn’t work out as planned.
“We honked and yelled, but it had the opposite effect,” Dischner said. “It came right toward us.”
From less than 8 feet away, the two sat in their vehicle and watched the bear eat their s’mores and unfinished dinner items.
“It had no fear of humans,” Dischner said.
They called Alaska State Troopers. The responding vehicle used its sirens to haze the animal out of the area, but it wasn’t long before it came back again, according to Lewis.
“That Sunday it showed up at the Lower Skilak boat launch where someone reported they had shot it with a .44 magnum after it was getting into coolers and other attractants,” he said.
Fearing the bear may be injured and now potentially even more dangerous than it already was behaving toward people, Lewis used the cub’s radio collar to triangulate its position, track it down and kill it.
Lewis, teh U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and wildlife troopers responded. After the bear was euthanized, Lewis determined the person who had reported shooting the bear with the pistol had actually not hit the animal, as it had no wounds. But with the bear being so human-habituated and already returning to reap human-based food rewards after two relocations, the bear did not have a future anyway.
“This was its third strike,” he said.