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Fresh tracks: Time to be bear aware on Peninsula

Posted: April 17, 2012 - 8:28am

A biologist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge last Wednesday spotted the year's first, fresh bear tracks near Headquarters Lake. A small black bear is believed to have left the tracks, the refuge reported.

Breakup signals the return of summer to Alaska, as well as bears awakening from hibernation. Officials recommend Kenai Peninsula residents remain cautious of bears when outdoors. Brown bears are present in the surrounding wilderness and dwell close to Kenai and Soldotna.

During mid-April, brown bears emerge from hibernation. Black bears appear about May 1, said Steve Miller, deputy refuge manager.

When bears awaken can be affected by the weather. A particularly warm or wet spring can rouse the bears earlier than expected. A large amount of snow cover can cause the opposite to happen, Miller said.

This spring could produce a later arrival of bears, but Miller recalls two reported bear sightings on the refuge already.

"We think at least a few of them have come out of hibernation," he said.

Brown and black bears inhabit Kenai refuge and central Peninsula. Black bears are common in all forest habitats on the refuge. They also occur above tree line in the Kenai Mountains. Densities average around one bear per 1.6 square miles, according to the refuge.

Brown bears are less common than black bears on the Peninsula, but visitors and residents spot and report brown bears at higher frequency. They hunt around the rivers and waterways -- the same locations where people recreate.

Both types of bears are opportunistic eaters using vegetation, berries, and animal matter. When salmon choke streams in summer they become a prime source of food.

However, brown bears are more aggressive, Miller said.

"You'll see them fishing along the same areas at the same time," he said. "Black bears are either running away or at least not being inquisitive while brown bears hang around and stand their ground a little bit more."

It is estimated that the brown bear population on the refuge stands at about 300. Mortality of bears from defense of life and property kills and sport harvest are believed to be exceeding the amount the population can sustain. So, a study has been initiated to learn more about brown bear ecology on the Peninsula.

"We're right in the process of releasing a larger (population) number, but we're not ready at this point," Miller said. "We did a genetic study, and we're trying to come up with a genetics-based population estimate on the refuge and in surrounding forest."

Placing bird feeders on higher tree limbs, feeding domesticated animals inside and being mindful of trash keeps bears at a distance. Committing to the above practices will prevent bears from becoming acclimated to an additional food source, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Soldotna Police Sgt. Robb Quelland said bears wandering into town are common and expressed the same concerns regarding trash and animal food. He also encourages residents who spot bears to call the Soldotna Police Department.

"If they do see any bears we'd appreciate if they would call it in, and we can notify the other neighbors in the area," he said.

In October 2011, a brown bear was spotted in a Soldotna area for a period of three days. SPD received several complaints about the bear rummaging through people's garbage. The bear also caused property damage when trying to escape capture and evade residents.

Soldotna Officer Victor Dillon in September 2009 shot and killed an injured bear that had been scavenging a residential area for days. The bear was shot while charging the officer, and it was likely attracted to the smell of a recently butchered caribou carcass.

There were no serious incidents at the refuge last summer. A portion of the Russian River was closed to the public, as a female and two brown bears cubs were staying put in that area of woods.

Warning signs were put up along a few trails after bears charged hikers, but there were no attacks.

If people do find themselves confronting a bear, making noise and standing your ground are the best options. If the bear is at a distance, this is especially helpful. It is probably being inquisitive, Miller said.

The same goes for groups of people. Officials recommend clustering together as to appear larger to the bear.

"Your options vary as other factors come into play," Miller said. "Whether you have a firearm, bear spray or something else."

Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at jerzy.shedlock@peninsulaclarion.com.

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