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Where does an 800-pound brown bear go when he’s hungry?
According to a recent study of the bears in the Anchorage Bowl, pretty much anywhere he wants – including Fort Richardson and Elmendorf Air Force Base.
The two-year study, conducted by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in conjunction with wildlife officials from both military installations, focused on answering these questions about brown bears:
Where are the bears around Fort Richardson and Elmendorf, and where do they travel?
What are they eating?
How many are there?
In a two-hour presentation at Elmendorf’s Talkeetna Theater May 5, Sean Farley, a bear research biologist with ADF&G, mapped out the study’s methodologies and findings.
Farley said although most people think of brown bears as a wilderness species, they are widely found around Anchorage.
“They’re not little bears, necessarily,” Farley said. “Some of them are, but the whole range of reproductive status – females with cubs, lone females and big males – are all present and living here, which was a big surprise for us because we didn’t expect to find the diversity of bear types and sizes that we did.”
He said a lot of the bears in the study were captured along the mountains using helicopters and barrel traps as they came out of their dens in the spring. They were then tagged with radio collars and released to go about their normal business. Farley kept track of the bears’ movements by flying over the study area and downloading information from the collars, which recorded data such as locations via GPS antenna every 15 minutes.
What the researches found, was although the Glenn Highway presents a formidable barrier to bear traffic, it by no means keeps them from using the military installations as part of their territory. The territory proved to be rather large for some bears, while others confined themselves mostly to the installation.
Farley showed the audience a map with multi-colored dots representing the bear tracking data to show areas they had been during the study. One large male in particular – he weighed in at 740 pounds when captured in the spring – ranged far and wide.
“He would go over to the Little Su and come back,” Farley noted. “He denned up in Ship Creek the first year, and the next year he denned up Peters Creek.”
Ship Creek seems to present a natural corridor for the bears to travel through built-up areas of the installation in their search of food, Farley said. Their need to feed drives the necessity to live in close proximity to people.
“They’re willing to tolerate F-22s, C-17s – you name it – flying off in order to come down and check out the stream,” he said. “They will tolerate humans to a large extent, as long as they can get food.”
The most obvious food source, fish, is present in area streams during summer and fall. During those months, the bears stay close to water.
“If I go to each data point and I ask the question ‘How far is that data point from a stream that has salmon,’ and take the average over a week,” Farley said “… when the fish are present, the bears are basically camped out on the salmon streams within 100 yards or so.”
He noted the data also shows the bears use many popular trails to get to where they wanted to go, much as human do.
“And they didn’t really preferentially use these at night only when people weren’t there,” Farley said. “You can go down there, and it’s very easy to find day beds.”
Farley explained samples of bear hair were examined to provide insight into the animals’ diets. By comparing stable isotopes from the bears they handled to isotopes from various food sources, the study team was able to reliably predict what the bears had been eating and in what proportion.
“In the spring time, beginning about now, they concentrate on spring (moose) calves,” Farley explained. “Then when the salmon show up, they shift to salmon. Then in the time period when the berries begin to ripen, they switch back and forth – they don’t just drop salmon and go eat berries, but they’ll go back and forth.”
The third design of the study was to come up with an estimate of how many bears are within the study area. This turned out to be a time-intensive problem.
Farley explained the team went to all the salmon streams in the area and collected hair samples and conducted DNA analysis to determine an absolute minimum number of at least 36 animals from the 456 samples collected.
“In Bicentennial Park, we actually identified 20 different individual brown bears which were using that area,” Farley said. Another 15 were identified as using Fort Richardson and Elmendorf, and some of the bears crossed into all three areas.
“The take home message is, there are bears here, and they aren’t just passing through,” Farley said. “They are resident – they live here.”
Farley said presenting the study results were not meant as scare tactics.
“This is not meant to scare people; this is not meant to frighten you or horrify you,” he said. “This is truly, really an educational opportunity to explain to you this isn’t Kansas for sure, this is Alaska – but at the same time you don’t have to be afraid to go outside. There’s ways we can act and do things to protect us and alert the bears to our presence.
“When you get bears and people together, usually it’s the people who do the goofier things,” Farley said. “The bears are really tolerant, but by no means are they anything other than brown bears, and there are some inviolate rules you don’t break in order to stay safe around brown bears.”
Herman Griese, Elmendorf wildlife biologist, offered tips to keep from luring bears – brown or black – near housing areas:
No garbage, food, bird feeders or pet food should be stored outside from April through November.
Garbage should be stored in bear-resistant containers whenever possible.
Don’t clean fish around the house without a thorough cleanup.
Clean grills and smokers after each use.
Griese also offered tips to avoid dangerous encounters when out enjoying Alaska:
If you encounter a bear, never run. It triggers their chase instinct, and they can run far faster than you.
Travel in groups and make noise. Bears will almost always avoid people if at all possible.
When camping, store food in bear-proof containers or in an inaccessible location.
Stay alert when hiking or fishing and avoid surprising a bear.
If you see a bear, don’t approach it; slowly back away and leave the area.
Carry bear deterrent, such as pepper spray, and be proficient with it. Griese suggested taking the canister into a wooded area and making sure you know how to use it properly before you head into the wild. Figuring out how to use it while a large bear is charging your direction is not suggested.