As Alaska tourism continues its steady growth, wildlife biologists in the most populous region of the state are increasingly worried about how to save both black and grizzly bears from human ignorance.
Some conflicts between bears and people in Alaska are inevitable, the biologists concede. It is even to be expected that most summers, someone will be injured by a bear, and some bears will be killed.
But problems that have erupted this summer in Portage Valley, on the Kenai Peninsula and elsewhere appear largely the result of human behavior.
“We’ve got people feeding the bears,” said Jo Ellen Locksfelt, a Forest Service wildlife technician. “I don’t know how to get to people who are not from here, who are camping and putting out food for photo opportunities, and tell them not to do that.
“A fed bear is a dead bear, but people don’t seem to understand that. We’ve had two bears killed in the last month and a half.”
The story is usually the same when people and bears intersect at Alaska’s popular campgrounds, said Chuck Schwartz, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game bear biologist:
People feed the bear, either accidentally or intentionally. The bear figures out humans are a good source of an easy meal. The bear begins approaching people for food, sometimes acting visibly aggressive. People get panicky and give it more food. The bear gets bolder. When visible aggression fails to bring a treat, the bear tries physical aggression. Finally, someone either kills the bear or gets hurt, and if someone gets hurt, the bear almost always gets killed.
“It’s not the tourists that suffer,” Schwartz said. “They come and they go, and they’re here once and they’re gone. It’s the bears that suffer.”
When tourists aren’t conditioning the bears to expect food, he added, they are pressuring the big, powerful animals into situations where they must choose between their instincts to fight or flee. A bear that flees loses the feeding opportunities it needs to accumulate enough fat for the long winter hibernation. A bear that fights invariably gets shot.
“Every year we have some knotheads who don’t get the message,” said Locksfelt. “I just have to guess these people really have no experience with animals. I get kind of concerned when we tell people there’s a bear around somewhere and about 50 percent of them run away and the other 50 percent run toward it.”
The Forest Service is considering ways to make campgrounds safer. Before the summer is over, the federal agency is likely to institute emergency regulations requiring bear-safe storage of all food, and there is talk of citing tourists for feeding bears - whether they do so accidentally or intentionally.
State law prohibits feeding any big-game animals. State wildlife protection officials think that citing a tourist or two might be the easiest way to get the attention of summer campers visiting here.
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