Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

 
 

Bear monitor quits; state rethinking job

 


State parks officials say they hope to have one or more monitors along Chilkoot River by the month’s end to replace Shannon Donahue, who for the past two seasons kept crowds and brown bears apart.

Donahue resigned before her June 1 start date. She declined comment on her resignation this week, but said for the program to be effective, the state needs to have at least two monitors on site at a time, each with the authority to write citations.

“Mostly we need more of what we’ve been doing... The job requires more than one person there at a time,” Donahue said.

Park ranger Preston Kroes said the lack of a monitor hasn’t been an issue yet. “There really hasn’t been that much activity out there.”

But recent sightings of five juvenile bears, rumors of people feeding bears from cars at Chilkoot and one juvenile bear’s romp through the state campground Monday are making other bear-watchers anxious. Two juvenile brown bears identified as from the Chilkoot already have been shot around homes in town this year.

“I really have concerns,” said Pam Randles, a commercial tour guide who also serves on the Chilkoot Bear Foundation. “We have all these young cubs out there, and we have reports they’re getting food and not responding to horns (blasted for dispersal). That’s a recipe that I don’t like the sounds of.”

The juveniles are already habituated to people for having spent two years with sows, feeding along the Chilkoot where bear-watchers and fishermen congregate, Randles said. In their first year away from sows, they need to be learning to stay away from people, not to associate them with food, she said.

She said she was particularly concerned about bears equating cars with food, as bruins at places like Yellowstone National Park learned to break into cars.

Park host Bob Deck spent Monday chasing a tagged, juvenile bear around the Chilkoot campground. At one point, the bear stretched out in the middle of a road in front of a campsite, watching as campers there cooked their breakfast, Deck said.

Deck said he was told of two incidents of people feeding bears from vehicles along Chilkoot River, including a bag of potato chips thrown out a tour bus window. “If that’s true, that’s a problem,” he said.

Ranger Kroes said he was aware of a bear trying to get into a dumpster at Chilkoot, but had no information on intentional feedings. “It could be a Haines rumor. Until I get way more substantial information, I’m not going to try to guess at that or figure it out.”

In the absence of a monitor, Kroes said he’ll patrol the river. “I spend a lot of time out there anyway. I don’t know how we could do much better. When I’m out there, people behave fairly well. When I’m at a different park, or I leave, that’s when things happen.”

Regional parks superintendent Mike Eberhardt said this week the state will be looking to hire one or two people with people skills to replace Donahue. Monitors carry no badge and no gun.

“A parks specialist doesn’t usually have to have this level of expertise in crowd control. We’re trying to up the ante here… We’ll be looking more heavily at how does the person we’re hiring do with crowd control, conflict resolution and voluntary compliance. That’s the issue,” Eberhardt said.

“There’s no question that verbal judo is a very important skill for a person to do that, as well as having our law enforcement back-up right there,” he said.

Eberhardt said the monitor position is still evolving. It’s the state Division of Parks’ first foray into managing bear-viewing, he said. Parks will coordinate with Fish and Game workers along the Chilkoot “so we’re all giving the same message,” he said.

Other bear-viewing areas don’t always have officials carrying around guns, he said, but visitors at those places are made aware that there is enforcement follow-through, he said. At Chilkoot, there may not have been a “good, consistent message” sent by the state, or enough enforcement follow-through, he said. “It is 100 percent necessary to make sure bad behavior is taken care of, or at least addressed.”

The “bear monitor” title is a misnomer, Eberhardt said. “It’s more about crowd control than bear control. We’re not controlling bears at all. We’re trying to keep people out of their way.”

At state campgrounds, hosts speak on behalf of rangers, and rangers can issue citations to people who disobey hosts, Eberhardt said. “We need to be sure that the people who don’t want to play nice aren’t played with nicely,” he said.

Kroes said he’s hoping to hire two monitors to replace Donahue. “I’d rather get two, lesser-qualified people and have more coverage. Even when it was (Donahue) and me, there were gaps in coverage,” he said.

The bear foundation’s Randles said juvenile bears seen this year are among 10 born along the Chilkoot in 2009. “I sincerely hope that before the pinks (salmon) start running, Preston gets the people he needs because (monitors) have been effective.”