Today international organizations such as the Wildlife Conservation Society, for whom I work as a biologist, are helping Russian wildlife managers. But here in Russia's untamed frontier, far from Moscow's prosperity, with the local economy still in a slump, the future of the bears is up for grabs—dependent on people with different stakes in the animals. To the hunting guide the bears are a source of income. To the scientist they're a key part of Russia's wilderness. To the poacher they're competitors for salmon (and lucrative caviar). And to the reindeer herder they're wise and powerful neighbors. Whether the giants survive or fade away depends on who prevails.
The revving of snow machines outside the cabin announces their return. Victor Rebrikov strides through the door, pulling off his snowmobile goggles, raccoon-eyed from the sun and wind, aglow with sunburn and satisfaction. He's spent the day recovering the carcass of a bear shot by one of his clients, an American trophy hunter. The bear had tumbled into a gulch, and to reach it Rebrikov and two guides had rappelled down a steep slope. They'd skinned the frozen carcass and carried the heavy bearskin back out.
"Now my client will go home happy," he says, warming up with a cup of soup in the kitchen.
A former veterinarian who spent many years working in small villages across Kamchatka, Rebrikov is one of two dozen or so outfitters who organize bear hunts throughout the peninsula. The five log cabins in his camp are a short walk from Dvukhyurtochnoye Lake, more than five square miles (13 square kilometers) of salmon spawning grounds wedged between two eastward fingers of the Sredinny Range, backbone of the Kamchatka Peninsula. Two thousand feet (610 meters) above the camp, miles of wind-packed snowdrifts blanket mountain plateaus—an ideal setting for tracking brown bears in early May as they emerge from winter dens to find fresh greens and pursue mates.
About a third of the 500 bear-hunting permits given to Rebrikov and other outfitters by the Kamchatka Department of Wildlife Management have been used in the spring for foreign trophy hunters, who pay as much as $10,000 each. In a region larger than California, with bear habitat from one end to the other, such a harvest might be sustainable. But a survey in 2002 estimated that an additional 445 bears were killed illegally that year by poachers. Researchers already report fewer older large bears.
In mid-2004 the governor of the peninsula's southern administrative region banned all spring bear hunting. (Hunting is still permitted in the fall, when the bears are harder to find.) The ban, not supported by local wildlife managers, may have been aimed at conservation-minded voters in the city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, where the majority of the peninsula's 360,000 people live. But if the ban is upheld in court, it could cause the bears more harm than good, Rebrikov warns, because outfitters won't be able to afford to keep private wardens in their hunting areas.