With 3 attacks in a month, Sitka bears showing ‘stress,’ district ranger says

The Forest Service is not sure why Sitka’s bears seem to be on edge. An excess of cubs, too few pink salmon — both might part of the explanation. (KCAW image)
The Forest Service is not sure why Sitka’s bears seem to be on edge. An excess of cubs, too few pink salmon — both might part of the explanation. (KCAW image)

A pair of Forest Service workers killed a charging brown bear near Sitka at the end of August.

It was the third dangerous bear encounter in the Sitka Ranger District in less than a month.

Sitka District Ranger Perry Edwards said the pair of workers — whose names will not be released — was doing a fisheries survey along Appleton Creek, about 30 miles north of Sitka, and only about 10 miles from where a wilderness guide from UnCruises was seriously mauled just over a week earlier.

The workers were making a lot of noise as they progressed about a mile up the stream bed, when they saw a brown bear on the canyon wall about 50 yards ahead, Edwards said.

“The bear saw them, immediately came charging down the hill at full speed,” he said. “It was really brushy. The crew had enough time to back up from thick salmonberry brush to have a clear opening. And the bear came through the brush and was shot about 30 feet away from the crew.”

Brown bears at top speed move at about 30 miles per hour, Edwards said. His crew relied on training and muscle memory to avert a disaster.

“The crew estimated less than four seconds from the moment they first saw that bear to the moment they fired the first shot.”

The Tongass National Forest has annual training for employees in the use of both lethal and non-lethal bear deterrents — and in how to avoid potentially harmful bear encounters altogether, Edwards said.

The bear proved to be a sow. She had two large cubs, both of whom were in trees next to her, and nowhere near the fish crew.

Edwards, who also is a habitat biologist, suspects that sows over the last few mild winters may have produced more cubs than usual and now — especially with pink salmon returns lower than normal — they’re feeling stressed.

Not many people make their way up Appleton Creek.

Edwards said one possibility was that this bear was guarding the stream like it might guard a food cache.

“Maybe the bear was defending that fishing spot and was at the point where, ‘one more creature comes by my fishing spot and and I’m going to give them a what-for that they will always remember.’”

The shooting took place on August 27.

Forest Service dispatch notified Alaska Fish and Wildlife troopers.

As with any so-called “DLP” — or the shooting of a bear in defense of life and property — the Forest Service surrendered the hide, skull, and claws to the state.

Just nine days before this incident on August 18, and about 10 miles away across Peril Strait, two UnCruise guides were mauled leading a group of more than 20 people in Sitkoh Bay.

The guide at the front was medevac’d south and is expected to recover.

On August 7, former search-and-rescue captain Don Kluting shot a sow with a .44 revolver after it charged him and a hiking partner in Nakwasina Sound — the first time this lifetime resident and outdoorsman had shot a bear in self-defense.

Edwards said the reasons why these bears are charging are impossible to know, and in his words “irrelevant.”

Rather, he wants the public to be aware of their surroundings, make efforts to avoid bear encounters, and be prepared to deter a bear, if necessary.

Editor’s note: In addition to being the Sitka District Ranger, Perry Edwards currently serves as the president of the board of the KCAW Raven Radio Foundation.

KCAW - Sitka

KCAW is our partner station in Sitka. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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