Which bear is which?: Study to add to knowledge of peninsula brown bears

Posted: Friday, May 29, 2009

Two brown bears were shot this past week, but both sows are back up and on their feet, just as the marksmen intended.

Photo By Joseph Robertia
Photo By Joseph Robertia
A bear shot killed in defense of life by two hunters in 2006 was able to be identified and have its age and history on the peninsula known as a result of a lip tattoo. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is in the process of collaring more brown bears for a study of their biology and ecology. Ear tags and lip tattoos are also put on the bruins while they are sedated.

"We started darting bears on Tuesday as part of our ongoing collaring project, and we got two already," said Jeff Selinger, area wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The purpose of the project, he said, is to increase Fish and Game's knowledge and understanding of population demographics for Kenai Peninsula bruins. Once collared, tracking flights of the bears can be conducted throughout the year to determine litter sizes, cub survivability and delays between litters -- and that's just some of the information biologists hope to glean from the project.

Brown bears have been radio-collared on the peninsula since the mid-1990s, and while numerous bruins already wear the tracking devices, more animals are added to the study annually, according to Selinger.

"We've been trying to build up the sample size as we get funding. We're targeting adult sows. Going into this year, we had about 27 adult females, and we'd like to get another 12," he said.

Bears -- which are targeted away from human populations -- are spotted via a fixed-wing aircraft, which radios Fish and Game employees in a helicopter with the bear's position, so they can quickly swoop in and dart the bruin with tranquilizers. The fixed-wing craft then stays in the area to ensure no other bears move in while Fish and Game staff are on the ground conducting their work on the downed animal.

"Once they're down, there's a lot we do besides just putting the collars on them. We monitor their heart rate, temperature and breathing. We perform body index measurements to see what condition they're in. We take skull measurements. We'll also take a premolar to determine their age and tattoo their lips for identification," Selinger said.

These tattoos often help Fish and Game identify animals at a later date, after their collars have dropped off, particularly when they have interactions with humans.

For example, in 2006 two Soldotna hunters killed a huge, 650-pound, charging brown bear while heading to their remote black bear-baiting station in a heavily wooded area off of Mackey Lake Road outside of Soldotna. The animal's lip tattoos allowed Fish and Game to identify the animal, and learn it's age and life history.

According to Selinger, another example of how bear identification has helped Fish and Game was also in 2006 when a bear was sedated after rummaging around in a Dumpster behind Suzie's Cafe in Sterling.

"We were surprised to find out she was a bear we had already seen at the Russian River," he said.

The young sow was initially sedated and marked with identification as a cub, as a result of it being orphaned after her mother was illegally shot near the Russian River in 2003. This sow had tags which helped identify it when it reappeared behind the local eatery.

"We also put ear tags into the bears, and we take the ear punch for genetic sampling. We also take blood too. We're continually building up our genetic database of bears on the Kenai," he said.

Selinger said he hopes genetic data can be used to better understand several aspects of bear biology and ecology, including family lineage.

"Females tend to stick closer to the home range where they were born, rather than dispersing out like males. So we'd like to look at nuisance bears to see if females that come in are having offspring that come in, and are responsible for nuisance bear issues over the long run. Or, is it just different bears continually migrating into the area causing problems," he said.

The collaring project will continue through May 30, unless Fish and Game is successful in collaring the desired number of animals before that date.

"We'll spend two more days here," Selinger said on Wednesday, "then we'll move down toward Homer, around the east end of Kachemak Bay to collar bears there."

Joseph Robertia can be reached at joseph.robertia@peninsulaclarion.com.

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