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Berkley Bedell/USFWS
Promoting human-bear coexistence: a brown bear sow and cub approach a fish cleaning table on the Kenai River.

Managing bears (and humans) with a new perspective

Posted: September 2, 2011 - 8:17am
Rebecca Zulueta collects bear hair during a 2010 study to estimate brown and black bear populations on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and Chugach National Forest .  John Morton/USFWS
John Morton/USFWS
Rebecca Zulueta collects bear hair during a 2010 study to estimate brown and black bear populations on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and Chugach National Forest .

Starting in 2009, I worked on the Kenai Peninsula as a biological technician first for the Chugach National Forest and then for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. The studies I worked on varied from conducting acoustical goshawk surveys to brown bear population estimates using non-invasive genetic sampling.

While I found all of these studies intriguing and useful, it was living in these communities that helped me realize the importance of understanding a community’s perception of wildlife when it comes to successful wildlife management. With this in mind, I decided it was time to return to college and further my understanding of wildlife management through a joint Master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Biology & Sustainable Development.

For my graduate research, I decided to take a new direction from my past experience with wildlife research. I wanted to approach the goal of human and bear coexistence on the Kenai Peninsula through understanding human perception of brown and black bears in six different communities. As human development and recreation expands into bear habitat, wildlife managers must consider options necessary to keep a thriving population of bears while also addressing concerns from residents who live in these areas.

There is increasing conflict between humans and bears on the Kenai. The number of brown bears killed in defense of life or property has been increasing over the past half century, roughly paralleling the human population growth rate of over 2% per year. Research should be directed at the question of why conflicts occur through an understanding of human experiences, attitudes, risk perception, and tolerance toward bears as a means to manage those conflicts.

So I developed a survey of Kenai Peninsula residents to address these concepts by asking questions such as the frequency of sightings and conflicts, how people feel about bears on the Kenai Peninsula, and how a person might handle an interaction with a bear. I also felt it was important to include questions about both black and brown bears as some people may have different feelings and experiences with these species.

Starting out this summer, I did not expect as many people to be as open as they were to participating and chatting with me about their experiences. While preparing for the worst, I hoped for the best, and found that the kindness of strangers never ceases to amaze me. The very first person I asked to participate in the survey not only happily filled one out, but also offered me a jar of smoked salmon (how truly Alaskan I thought!). Throughout the survey people were excited to chat and often offered me a drink or food. I was continually impressed by how open and generous people were after doing me a favor.

Unfortunately, not everyone I met was as excited about the topic of my survey. No matter how friendly and polite I was, a few people had some tough words. This is when I was glad I had some customer service experience under my belt to not take things too personally, especially when their comments had more to do with their disappointment and experiences with past wildlife management rather than with what I was trying to do. It was important that I listened to what they had to say and learn from it, but if they were unwilling to fill out a survey I could not include that information in my data set.

Although I purposely chose this type of research to learn more about its application, it was not without a bit of anxiety. To me, knocking on a stranger’s door is much more intimidating than backpacking alone in a forest with bears. The fact that many Alaskans also have large, intimidating dogs definitely added more unwanted excitement to my experience until I learned to bring along dog treats.

Something that surprised me during my survey was that so many people wanted to talk about the moose population. Many people brought this up because they felt that the brown bear population had increased over the past few years and caused a decline in moose by predating on moose calves. While I find this a very interesting observation, it’s also important to note that brown bears are not the only species that predate on moose calves, and factors such as highway traffic, rural subdivisions, hunting pressure, and fire cycles also affect moose populations.

In the end, over 430 people filled out a survey for me and the least I could do for taking their time is to provide useful information from what I collected. After completing the analysis of my research I will need to find a way these communities can benefit from this information. The fact that people often asked me what the study was for and what I was hoping to get out of it was a huge driving force in this thought process.

My study is the first of its kind for the Kenai Peninsula. Many participants were thrilled that I had an interest in their experiences and wanted to hear what they had to say. This study will ultimately give wildlife managers a better understanding of residents’ experiences with bears along with their attitude, risk perception, and tolerance. Humans have the greatest impact on wildlife and without better understanding how people feel towards wildlife, it is difficult to successfully manage and conserve wildlife.

Without people who are interested in taking the time to share their opinions, a survey of this nature would be impossible to complete. It is only because of all the participants that I have data to analyze, and information to publish and present in the future. Thanks so much to all of you who participated in this study!

Rebecca Zulueta is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her study was partially supported by the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. You can find more information about the refuge at http://kenai.fws.gov or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge

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