At 11:59 pm June 10th, 2019, fishermen and women jostled elbow to elbow along the Russian and Kenai Rivers, poised to cast their line at midnight along one of the most prized sport fishing spots in North America. People flock by the thousands to these rivers that wind through the steep slopes of the Kenai Mountains to fish from their bountiful salmon runs.
This time-honored tradition of sport fishing dates back decades and has been preceded for thousands of years by the Dena’ina Native Alaskan tribes who fished these rivers to feed their families. The people of the Kenaitze tribe, which maintains sovereignty today, made their home in this region surrounding the confluence of the Russian and Kenai rivers. This area was also a major trading hub for all the neighboring Native tribes. However, in order to continue this ancient Alaskan tradition, healthy salmon spawning habitat is critical to maintain the large fish populations that return every year to the very waters they were born in to start the cycle over again. Defenders of Wildlife partnered with the U.S. Forest Service to organize a stewardship day to help protect this valuable riparian habitat.
On Saturday, June 8th, a sizable group of Defenders and Forest Service employees and volunteers met at the Russian River Campground to begin a long day of work. Every quarter mile or so along a fenced trail parallel to the river, corridors branch off and lead down to the banks. The primary objective for the days’ work was to make sure a heavily used section of the Russian River fishery is set up so that fishermen stick to the designated trails and access points rather than tromping new social trails through the woods to get to their fishing spot. We also wanted to make sure that fishermen discard their fish waste in a manner that minimizes its effect as a bear attractant and therefore limits any negative conflict.
New fencing was needed in a few areas along the trail and directly along the riverbank to stop people from climbing out of the river at any point. Doing so erodes the bank and can ruin valuable salmon spawning habitat which is often located in the slower-moving edges of the river. Much of the older fencing was also in need of replacement or repair. Signs were placed periodically along the trail to inform the public of the fragility of the fenced off areas and to direct them to stay on the well-established trails. While the fencing limits human access to any part of the river, it does allow bears to move freely from the river to the shore.
Due to the abundant salmon runs, both brown and black bears are abundant along the Russian River. For the most part, they coexist quite peacefully with humans since there is plentiful natural prey. Problem bears are few and far between due to the diligence of the fishermen in limiting bear attractants and the enforcement of bear-safety regulations by agencies like the Forest Service. One way to prevent conflict is to properly dispose of fish carcasses that can attract bears. We anchored tables in the middle of the river where people can clean their fish and discard the carcasses into the river. This not only dissociates the fish smell from people, but it returns necessary nutrients to the environment by fertilizing the soil and feeding other animals downstream.
Volunteers on this stewardship day learned about the ecological importance of this land as well as its history and value to traditional ways of life for Native Alaskans. They forded the river in hip waders, diligently traversed the entire length of the Russian River access trails, and maybe even endured a bit of sunburn on the backs of their necks as the sun shone hot and bright overhead all day. Defenders is immensely grateful to the volunteers that took time out of their Saturday to help and the Forest Service prepare for the upcoming season and hope that everyone – bears and humans alike - can safely enjoy the river.