Refuge notebook: What do Kenai Peninsula residents really think about bears?

By powerfully voicing an opinion, the minority can easily drown out the opinion of the majority. This fact stresses the importance of finding a way to hear everyone’s opinion when there are decisions to make that affect the entire community. When it comes to the subject of bears on the Kenai Peninsula, we have all heard a variety of opinions about their presence, some more often than others. However, does that necessarily mean the majority of residents feel the same way?

 

“Bears go with the territory — their presence is welcome until they inflict damage.”

 “(We) need better (brown) bear season on peninsula, more bears around than people think and would have more moose if the (brown) bear pop was managed better.”

“Bears and all animals need to be protected! We live in rural AK and need to respect and preserve the wildlife that was here before humans!! Bears will leave you alone if you leave them alone.”

These quotes come from a survey I conducted during the summer of 2011 as part of my graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The goal of this research was to take a closer look at Kenai Peninsula communities to better understand how residents feel about brown and black bear populations. Interest in this topic stems from the fact that since 2000 there has been a dramatic increase in the number of conflicts between humans and bears that result in bears killed in defense of life or property (DLP).  

 My study objectives were to determine if there are differences in attitude and risk perception toward both brown and black bears among residents from low versus high DLP communities. In order to accomplish this, I went door to door talking with residents, asking them to participate in a statistically-designed survey about their opinions and experiences with bears.

An overwhelming majority of the 465 residents I contacted were eager to give their perspective with 94 percent agreeing to fill out a survey. Respondents were all 18 years or older from six communities on the Kenai Peninsula: Sterling, Cooper Landing, and Bear Creek represented high DLP communities while Cohoe, Moose Pass, and Seward represented low DLP communities. These communities were selected based on their human population size and housing density.

Overall, 80 percent of respondents showed a positive attitude towards both brown and black bears regardless of community type. The key factors in predicting attitudes toward bears included their opinion on the bear population size, and their age, education, and overall experience with bears.

More than 60 percent of respondents reported a “somewhat weak to neutral” sense of risk perception toward brown and black bears. Not surprisingly, residents living in high-DLP communities tended to perceive more risk associated with brown bears than those living in low-DLP communities. Risk perception toward bears was best predicted by respondents’ opinion about the bear population size and their overall experience with bears.

Over 80 percent of respondents reported having positive to neutral experiences with both bear species. The majority of respondents had not experienced a loss or damage from brown (71 percent) or black bears (69 percent). Those that did experience a conflict categorized the incidents as loss or damage of structures such as buildings and vehicles, a threat to themselves or family members, and other loss or damage, often to items such as bird feeders and barbecues.

Now I’d like to point out that many of these items people talked about being damaged are also known attractants for bears. In fact, I actually surveyed each residence I visited for attractants visually present as I entered and left the property. Attractants I noted included pets or animals outside, pet food, garbage not in bear resistant containers, and beehives. Since I was not able to survey the entire property of each respondent, this information is most likely very conservative. Fifty-one percent of residents had attractants out on their property on the day I visited, the majority being some type of animal. Survey respondents living in low-DLP communities had fewer attractants on their property than those in high-DLP communities.

Since attractants are an issue residents must deal with to decrease potential conflict with bears, I also wanted to know what people did to protect themselves, family, pets, and/or property from bears. It turned out that 91 percent of respondents routinely used some type of preventive method. The most common practices included using or having firearms (63 percent), dogs (41 percent), and other methods such as air horns or warning neighbors of sightings (36 percent). Although many residents stated they never leave garbage outside, I often noted there were other attractants on their property such as bird feeders or a recently-used barbecue. While this didn’t happen all the time, it’s important to recognize that we may become complacent at times or forget what constitutes an attractant to bears.

When it finally came to the question about how residents felt about the size of the Kenai brown bear population, only a third of residents (34 percent) thought the population was “too high/high” among response options that included “too high, high, about right, low, too low, and not sure.” Almost half the respondents (48 percent) chose either “about right” or “low/too low”, while the remaining respondents were “not sure” (18 percent). Opinions on the black bear population were similar with 46 percent choosing “about right”.

Results of my survey show that most residents on the Kenai Peninsula are tolerant of brown and black bears at their current population levels. However, to effectively minimize human-bear conflicts, it’s important to understand people’s experiences with bears and how their attitudes and risk perceptions can influence their behaviors toward bears.

Thank you to all participants in the 2011 survey! This research would not have been possible without your willingness to express your opinions.

 

Rebecca Zulueta recently earned an interdisciplinary M.S. in Conservation Biology & Sustainable Development and Wildlife Ecology. She is currently interning at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. ‘Like’ the Refuge on Facebook to stay connected with upcoming events, news and recreation updates at www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.

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