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Wolverine Creek Area Planning
Background

Executive Summary of Big River Lake Field Operations Report

ADF&G, November 2002

Wolverine Creek Cove lies within the boundaries of the Redoubt Bay Critical Habitat Area (RBCHA), located 80 miles southwest of Anchorage on the west side of Cook Inlet. The RBCHA is managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G), and encompasses 268 square miles of coastal wetlands and tidal mudflats in the Big River drainage.  This special area supports and protects habitat such as freshwater streams, lakes, wetlands, and upland areas for a variety of species, including four species of pacific salmon, marine mammals, migratory waterfowl and shorebirds, raptors (including eagles, hawks and falcons), furbearers, moose, black bear and brown bear.

The sockeye and coho salmon that migrate through Big River Lake attract sport fishermen, bears, and bear watchers. Sockeye fishing and bear watching occur most intensively within a 100 square foot area at the outlet of Wolverine Creek, where salmon congregate prior to their upstream migration. These activities typically begin in mid-June and decrease in late July, when the coho fishing begins near the outlet of Big River Lake. Some fishermen continue to fish for sockeye in the cove through late August, and bear viewing continues in the cove until mid-September.

The majority of visitors come to Wolverine Creek Cove to sport fish. ADF&G estimated that, in 2002 sport anglers made up 65% of the area’s visitors, and that bear viewing accounted for the remaining 35% of visitor use. Recently ADF&G personnel counted over 100 individuals in the cove at one time, although they found a morning and afternoon peak visitor count of 40-60 to be more typical.  Also in 2002, 18 boats were observed in the cove at one time, however 10-16 boats seems to be a typical number during the busiest times of day.

Visitor use at Wolverine Creek has increased from approximately 500 visitors annually in the early 1980s to approximately 2,000 visitors per year in the mid to late 1990s.  In the past two years, visitation has risen to approximately 7,500 visitors in 2001, and approximately 9,055 visitors in 2002.  This level of activity generated approximately $2.1 million in revenue for commercial guiding services and air taxis in 2001, and approximately $2.7 million in 2002.

As visitor use of Wolverine Creek has increased, visitors, commercial guides and ADF&G staff members have voiced concerns. Specifically, these concerns include the following: human safety, food-conditioning of bears, conflicts between bear watchers and sport anglers, destruction of bears, displacement of feeding bears, storage of boats, human sanitation, and onsite fish cleaning. In addition, increasing numbers of visitors raise question the sustainability of sport angling and bear viewing in this unique area, and the quality of the bear habitat.

According to long-time users, the number of brown bears using the site has also increased in recent years, which appears to reflect similar increases in brown bear densities throughout northern Cook Inlet drainages. Data collected in 2002 indicates that at least 27 individual brown bears (primarily sub-adults and mothers with cubs) and five black bears fed at Wolverine Creek Cove. These bears feed on salmon along the length of the creek and in the shallow waters of Big River Lake at the creek’s outlet.

In 2002, ADF&G received a Coastal Impact Assistance Program (CIAP) grant to conduct a two-season (June-August, 2002-2003) cooperative study with Washington State University (WSU) to collect baseline data regarding bear use in Wolverine Creek Cove. A graduate student from WSU and two assistants conducted 24-hour observations of bear activity in the cove during the 2002 season from a 16-foot high tower, and will continue those observations through the summer of 2003. This study will help us understand issues such as: where in the cove bears are most successful at fishing, whether some bears only use the cove during certain times of day, and whether bears catch more or less fish while visitors are in the cove.

Over the past four years, ADF&G has used different strategies to promote visitor safety and to protect wildlife habitat at Wolverine Creek. In 1999, a sign of guidelines for safe visitor behavior was placed near the cove. These guidelines were expanded and distributed through the mail to regular visitors, as well as handed out onsite in 2000 to those who were new to the area. These guidelines address appropriate behavior around bears, such as: not food-conditioning bears, not displacing bears and minimizing conflicts between humans and bears. Anyone with a permit to store a boat at Big River Lakes was required to convey the guidelines to their clients, guides or guests. In addition, a video addressing responsible fishing in bear country was distributed to commercial users.

ADF&G has maintained an onsite presence at Wolverine Creek since 1999, and established a field camp on Big River Lake in 2001 to inform new users of the guidelines. According to many returning guides, private visitors, and onsite ADF&G personnel, these management actions at have reduced negative visitor impacts on bears and their habitat, reduced conflicts between users of the area, and improved visitor safety.