Peninsula grizzlies offer unique opportunity for research

Getting the bear essentials

Posted: Friday, April 06, 2001

This isn't your grandfather's research -- or even your father's. This is the research devised with the assistance of modern technology.

Researching the whereabouts and habits of the Kenai Peninsula brown bear once rotated around the use of radio collars and a big map with little Xs marked on it. In a state that has much more wilderness than civilization, that combination can equal a tough job in the bear research industry.

"It used to be that we located the signal (off the VHF collar) and went out and found the bears every 10 days," said Sean Farley, a research biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, at the third annual Brown Bear Festival March 31. "We would put an X on the map to mark where the bear was at the time.)"

Scientists fear no more, for there is an answer to the problem of keeping crisp and detailed charts of brown bear habits and movements, thanks to the use of modern technology like GPS.

"We've taken the VHF collars and put GPS receivers on these things and mounted them on the bears," Farley said. "These things get the locations of the bears and sends the information out. We download that and make a map."

And the X on the map doesn't just come every 10 days either.

"The receivers gather the data every 40 minutes," Farley said. "We can then track the bears with these numbers to find out where they go and help us find the values of different habitats."

The information gathered by the GPS systems is put to use in helping Farley and his colleagues to determine what different bears do during different times of the year.

The research consisted of tracking two different groups of bears, those with cubs and those without, through two seasons, which consisted of one with salmon as a food source and one without salmon.

"The brown bears with the cubs (with no salmon) seemed to stay pretty much in the lowlands and far away from roads," Farley said. "(The areas) with a high probability of use were around Skilak and Tustumena (lakes), and they did not seem to go into the Caribou Hills."

According to Farley, the main reason the bears with cubs avoid the road system is probably to protect their young.

The results for the period when salmon are available to the cubs and their mothers showed quite a different story. The brown bears move to where the salmon are, which usually means where people are or where they travel often -- roads. According to Farley, the bears move closer to the roads because of the easier access to food supplies.

The data for the non-mother brown bears show almost a complete opposite reaction to the road system during the season that salmon is not a top food source. These brown bears move freely around the road system and, according to a map shown during Farley's presentation, seem to huddle near the road system during this time.

When the salmon run, the single bears seem to move south toward Homer and disperse to the streams and the rivers.

"They spread out to where the salmon are," Farley said.

According to Farley, the one member of the brown bear community that data has not been collected on could be the one member causing some of the most variation in the information collected.

"We do not have data on males, and they could make the (females') data vary," Farley said. "They could very well be one of the main causes in the variations of the habitat areas by both the bears with cubs and the bears without."

Farley said that the Kenai Peninsula is a unique location to study the brown bears because of their land use.

"The Kenai is a unique situation," he said. "The bears use the whole peninsula. The variations on where they use the land depends on the seasons and their own situations."

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