DILLINGHAM (AP) -- A sure sign that winters grip has weakened and that spring is on its way are fresh bear tracks in slushy snow.
Leon Braswell, a pilot for local Mulchatna Air, said he has been running across signs of waking bears since March.
''I fly all over the Bristol Bay area,'' Braswell said. ''I've seen quite a few open dens and a few bears popping out. I think a lot of them came out during the warm spell we had a few weeks ago, and probably went back to their dens when it got cold again.''
The traditional waking time for brown bears in the Bristol Bay area is during the annual thaw, when the days get longer and warmer, said Jim Woolington, a wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
While food may be a factor in the bears annual awakening, it is snow, or rather melting snow, that plays a bigger role, Woolington said.
''A lot of the time, what wakes the bears is their dens flooding out,'' he said. ''With such a mild winter, that may have begun earlier than normal, but it's hard to say.''
Both Woolington and Gail Collins, wildlife biologist for the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge, told the Bristol Bay Times that the mild winter experienced in Southwest Alaska could have different effects on waking bears.
Overall, moose and caribou in Southwest Alaska had an easy winter, meaning winter mortality should be low, Woolington said. That could translate into fewer carcasses for awakening bears to scavenge.
Collins said the lack of snow could also help. Less snow means melt down will occur faster. That might mean an earlier green up, which would be an advantage for the bears. Bears are mainly vegetarians and eat a lot of grasses.
Collins said that bears that have come out and are staying out may not be only grumpy but very hungry. This is the time of year for residents to start covering their trash.
''In the next couple of weeks we will definitely see an increase in bear activity,'' she said. ''With less winter-kill, they'll be looking for other food sources. If you deal with the (trash) problem now, you may not have to worry about bears this spring and summer. Otherwise you may have a problem with bears all year long.''
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