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Study gets hairy: Bear census results due at year's end

Posted: Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Kenai Wildlife Refuge's brown bear census comes to a close at the end of this month, and the project's leader believes its work will keep scientists busy.

Bear count manager and refuge biologist John Morton said that hair collectors found a good amount of usable samples, but will not know the results until end of the year.

"We'll keep the geneticists busy," Morton said.

Morton said that he planned to set up about 200 stations, but rough weather limited the installation to about 150. Setting up the lures late would have served little purpose, he said, because his teams needed to re-visit the sites multiple times to produce valuable results. Late station construction would have reduced the number of times, and therefore reliability, of the study.

"The first three days were pretty hairy," he said. "No pun intended."

Morton said that many bears have visited the stations, but the refuge won't know the success of the study until genetic testing sorts out brown and black bears. He said that it's difficult to visually distinguish between the two because of an overlap in hair color.

"We fully expected more black bears than brown," he said.

The refuge is sending hair samples to labs for genetic testing to see how many bears live on the Peninsula. For a bear to count in the half a million dollar census, its genetic signature must appear more than once. That increases the chances of counting bears that live in the area, not ones that pass through or died after visiting the station, according to the biologist. Morton said that he hopes his teams recaptures an eighth to a quarter of the bears which visited his site.

The stations were set up with two barbed wire strands strung in a triangle around a pile of vegetation, cattle blood and fish oil, which simulates a dead moose carcass that a bear buried for later consumption. The strands were positioned at different heights to snag hair from brown bears that step over or slip under the station.

Morton said that the refuge scheduled the study for the summer because that's the time of year when bears leave their dens and travel over the lowlands towards salmon streams. Returns were initially low, he said, but increased as time progressed.

He said that bears' reactions to the study differed depending on where the large mammals made their home on the Peninsula. Bears on the east side showed less fear of humans and led teams to call in helicopters to scare them away while they were attending the sites, Morton said. He claims that the crews weren't in any real danger, but he wanted to demonstrate that "the safety-net" was in place.

"They're not aggressive," he said. "They just don't run away. They'll walk right up to you in fact."

Rebecca Zuluetta, leader of the Moose Pass hair collection team, said that her crew carried a 12-gauge shotgun just in case. Zuluetta said that her crews unintentionally passed by brown bears, which alarmed both parties. The refuge biologist said that the brown bears ran away quickly. Another time, her crew encountered a black bear poking around a hair station and had to scare it away.

"It was very reluctant to leave," she said. "It was just hanging around."

Zuluetta said that she and her crew removed hair samples using tweezers. She said that her team used propane torches to sterilize the pinschers after each sample to reduce the chances of contamination. Then collectors stored the sample in individual envelopes containing silica leaves to aid the drying process.

Collectors wore latex gloves in case the hairs stuck to the barbs, but Zuluetta preferred collecting hair with the tweezers.

"I don't think you an be too safe with this with the amount of money," she said.

Tony Cella can be reached at tony.cella@peninsulaclarion.com.



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