State parks director Ben Ellis this week cited a department budget shortfall and a reported decrease in bear activity at Chilkoot River for his recent decision to not hire a bear monitor this season.
Ellis made his decision only days before park ranger Preston Kroes was to make a hire for the job aimed at maintaining a safe distance between people and bears along the narrow outlet from Chilkoot Lake.
The position has been funded for several years but came open when former monitor Shannon Donahue resigned at the start of summer.
A ranger-in-training who is shadowing Kroes, combined with volunteers, should suffice, Ellis said. “With two rangers and a small amount of bear encounters, it was my decision to go through summer with what we had” and postpone hiring a monitor until next season.
Pam Randles, president of the Haines-based Chilkoot Bear Foundation, this week questioned the state’s decision.
“We’re very unhappy about that. This year – without the monitor – has been very difficult,” Randles said. She said she would ratchet up her band of volunteers, who are giving out literature and monitoring interactions between people and bears. “We’ll do what we can.”
Randles and others have said that a high number of juvenile bears away from their mothers for the first time could make for risky encounters on the Chilkoot, as young bears typically test their boundaries.
Inappropriate behavior by people that worsens the situation there has “skyrocketed,” she said.
“I have never seen so many cases of people behaving in ways that increase the likelihood of bear-human conflict. People have fed the bears. People have baited bears. People have left their small children in the campground with food on the picnic table while they went into town,” Randles said in a recent e-mail.
The bears also have learned to ignore air horns and look for fish in cars, she said.
Parks director Ellis, however, gave a starkly different appraisal of the situation, saying this week there didn’t appear to be nearly as many bears in the Chilkoot corridor as in previous years, due to higher river levels and a broader dispersal of fish.
Ellis came to town in early August and said he didn’t see any bears at Chikoot on an evening visit, compared to a half dozen or more he saw during a trip last year. Randles’ assessment doesn’t match with what he has heard from park staffers, Ellis said. “That’s not the observation I’ve had and not what I’ve heard from my field staff,” he said.
Ellis said for the past several years the agency has been cut short about $530,000 annually, including $400,000 in personal services and the remainder in supplies. To deal with the shortfall, the agency has been delaying hiring and leaving some positions vacant statewide. It also will end work by its Civilian Conservation Corps one week early and do routine maintenance – like pumping outhouses – less frequently.
He said he is looking for ways to deal with the shortfall. “In areas where we feel we can delay adding a position, we’re doing that… I believe we can cover this area in a safe manner with this approach.”
Regional parks superintendent Mike Eberhardt said the no-hire directive came down two weeks ago. “We haven’t been given money for pay raises employees received the last six to eight years. We’ve been carrying a deficit from year to year. We’re up against the wall to fix it.”
Randles said she has six to 12 volunteers who will work random hours along the river, distributing literature and documenting human-bear encounters. They will be outfitted in bear foundation hats and shirts, she said.
Besides intercepting fish carcasses, bears also have learned how to trap anglers between the shoreline and the far, north corner of the Lutak bridge, Randles said. “Bears have learned to check that area and get between fishermen and the bridge,” causing anglers to surrender their catches, she said.
“Since that’s been successful, they’ve been using that every day. That’s sending the wrong message to the bear. Fortunately, the bear hasn’t been aggressive and goes into the woods, allowing fishermen to pass, but it’s a very risky situation,” she said.