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Warm winter affecting Kenai Peninsula wildlife

Posted: Thursday, February 13, 2003

KENAI (AP) -- The warm winter, with its lack of snow and heavy rainfall, is affecting wildlife on the Kenai Peninsula.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game already is getting calls about bear activity.

''We've already had three or four reports of browns out in Ninilchik, but lots of people are calling in saying they've seen tracks,'' said Jeff Selinger, area Fish and Game biologist.

Selinger said it's unusual to have bears out this early, but it's all related to the weather. Several factors are at play, including light penetrating the bears' dens because of lack of snow cover at the entrance, and warm temperatures or heavy rains allowing water to wet the inside of the dens.

Selinger said in all likelihood these scenarios are being played out on the peninsula.

''With this weather, I'm sure there are wet dens,'' he said.

Selinger speculated that the bears that are out are probably boars, since no family groups have been reported, and it's still too early in the year for cubs to follow their mother.

''Sows with cubs don't want to come out any earlier than they have to,'' he said.

With the early appearance of bears, Selinger advised peninsula residents to begin instituting the same safety concerns and practices they would use for bears in summer. Dog food, garbage, trapping baits or carcasses should be cleaned up.

''A lot times these things could probably be left out until April, but this year it needs to be picked up earlier,'' he said.

Although the weather may be a hindrance to bears, it is helping the moose population.

Selinger reported there have only been 120 moose hit by vehicles on the peninsula, as opposed to the 140 average animals typically hit by this time in most years.

''Most road kills are more a factor of darkness,'' said Selinger in relation to the long nights common during an Alaska winter. ''But without the heavy snowpack they're more spread out and not using the roads as much.''

Heavy accumulations of snow in the hills also can drive large numbers of moose down into more populated areas causing increased incidents of collisions with vehicles.

However, this year's warm weather hasn't caused them to congregate in the typical ways.

This, in turn, has probably affected the wolf population.

''With so little snow, the wolves probably aren't getting the meals they would from moose and caribou,'' Selinger said.

Wolves typically get an easy meal when moose are chest deep in snow and at a disadvantage to run or protect themselves from predators.

''Wolf litter sizes will most likely be smaller this year as a result,'' Selinger said.

He pointed out that wolves may be making up for the loss by preying on beaver.

Beaver food caches may have been washed away during the November floods last year. That, combined with the sparse ice condition on several bodies of water, may mean the beavers are out earlier searching for food, and therefore exposing themselves to predation by wolves.

Goat and sheep populations also may be having difficulties this year from all the ice. More ice than snow could mean more slips and fatal falls for the hoofed mammals.

Selinger speculated that populations of mice and other small mammals may be finding the weather troublesome. Without the heavy snowpack to insulate the ground, they are faced with the challenge of surviving in the cold temperatures that penetrate their burrows.



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