On Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, brown bears are viewed by the state's Department of Fish & Game as a "species of special concern." On the afternoon of Sunday, August 2, 2009, one old, emaciated brown bear became of great personal concern to Greg Brush. This is his story.
Brush, a veteran salmon fishing guide from the town of Soldotna, was walking his dogs on a rare day off from work. On his hip was a large handgun, a Ruger chambered for the powerful .454 Casull cartridge. Brown bears are a constant presence in Brush's neighborhood, and many residents feel the largely-unhunted animals have little fear of man.
Because of many bear-related incidents in this area, Brush always has brown bears on his mind…even when walking a well-maintained road. On just such a road, less than 500 yards from his house, Brush stopped when he heard a twig snap behind him. Turning his head toward the sound, Brush saw a monstrous brown bear charging toward him. "There was no warning," he stresses. "None of the classic teeth-popping or woofing, raising up on hind legs, or bluff-charging that you read about. When I spotted him he was within 15 yards, his head down and his ears pinned back. He was coming like a freight train…in total chase-mode."
Brush instinctively back-pedaled to avoid the charge, drawing the Ruger from its holster. "I fired from the hip as he closed the distance," Brush recalls. "I know I missed the first shot, but I clearly hit him after that. I believe I fired four or five shots. "
Brush finally fell on his back on the edge of the road. Miraculously, the bear collapsed a mere five feet from his boot soles, leaving claw marks in the road where Brush had--only seconds before--been standing. The bear was moaning, his huge head still moving, as Brush aimed the Ruger to fire a finishing shot. "By then my gun had jammed," Greg says. "I frantically called my wife on my cell phone and told her to bring a rifle. When she arrived I finished the bear."
Greg had to file a Defense of Life or Property (DLP) report after the incident. Biologists determined that the bear, a boar that measured 9' 6" from nose to tail (10' 6" from paw to paw), was between 15 and 20 years old and weighed between 900 and 1,000 pounds--and was underweight by an estimated 400 pounds. "His teeth were just worn out, and you could see his ribs through his hide," Brush says. "Normally they are eating mainly salmon, moose calves, or carrion right now as they put on fat for the winter. This bear had grass in his molars, a sure sign he was starving to death. He would not have survived the winter."
Brush says the boar's head was huge and heavy. "He had many scars and wounds, indicating he may have been run off by other bears. Two biologists and two veteran bear guides have told me that this was a predatory charge. There was no carcass nearby that he was defending and, obviously, no cubs to protect. Had I not been able to kill him, he'd have killed and likely eaten me."
In the days following the attack, Brush has spent a lot of time "pondering many what-ifs," he says. "I'm just so thankful that it wasn't my wife and/or girls walking down that road [Greg and Sherri have two daughters, Kelsey and Kendra]. And there are so many little things. What if I hadn't heard that twig? What if I'd missed those shots? I'm not an exceedingly religious man, but someone was watching over me that day. Just getting that heavy Ruger out of the holster and fired in that time frame is nearly impossible. After the incident, I tried to duplicate that shooting, and the most I could pull off was two shots in the seconds it took for the attack to happen."
Incidents like these prove the difficulty of managing brown bear populations in areas like the Kenai Peninsula. The Alaska Department of Fish & Game says that some critical brown bear habitat is threatened by human encroachment from commercial, recreational and residential developments. Therefore, they severely restrict hunting for browns to help keep populations viable.
But such protection is coming at a cost to the human residents of the Kenai. While incidents as dramatic as Greg Brush's are rare, human/bear encounters are not. Indeed, 31 DLP shootings were reported in 2008 alone. "There are people who do not take proper care of their garbage and do not respect bears, which I view as a wild and essential symbol of Alaska," Brush says. "They are part of the reason I moved here many years ago. But there we do take precautions, and do everything we can to give them their space. Unfortunately, bears here have little fear of people. When they smell or see a human, their reaction is rarely one of fear, like you see with bears in more remote areas. Here, many bears encounter people, and instead of fleeing, they associate them with food."