Researchers learning about Kenai Fjords bear population

Posted: Sunday, July 16, 2000

SEWARD (AP) -- Researchers doing the first-ever bear study in Kenai Fjords National Park say that they've learned that even after a long winter of hibernation, most bruins there wised up quickly to the dangers of a food-baited trap.

After luring a handful of black bears into barrel traps in May, the researchers from the University of Alaska Fairbanks hit a dry spell.

''They'd figured us out. They were too smart to get caught,'' doctoral student Jeff Villepique, who initiated the study, told the Seward Phoenix-Log.

It's not that there weren't any bears around the field site near Pedersen Glacier in Aialik Bay.

Before the flora leafed out, Villepique and assistant Phil Joy spotted 18 bears in a two-hour period. At night, they were often roused from their sleep by bruins crunching wild celery.

And it's not that the two researchers weren't trying hard enough.

They repeatedly moved their six barrel traps -- two 55-gallon drums welded together -- and tried different bait recipes. Curious black bears tried to shake out the snacks by jostling the traps, but they didn't succumb to temptation to go inside.

''I was surprised,'' Joy said. ''I thought food and bears went well together. I thought they'd be willing to do anything for food, but they're not.''

As the study unfolds over the next five years, which include three in the field, the two researchers hope to learn much more about bears than their eating habits.

The state Department of Fish and Game estimates that some 3,000 black bears live on the Kenai Peninsula. But little is known about the bears that live in the park's remote backcountry.

With more and more visitors finding their way into the park's luscious fjords and bays, park officials believe better management may be in order.

''Knowing more about them will allow us to do a better job of park management in general,'' said superintendent Anne Castellina. ''If you don't even know what you have to maintain, it makes it a little difficult to manage.''

The researchers hope to get a good understanding of not only the number of bears in the park, but also where they live and how they react to visitors.

''This will help tell us where we should establish camping and visitor-use sites, and how to keep people and bears from negative interactions,'' said Jeff Troutman, chief resource manager for the park.

As for the bears, those that get caught will be weighed and examined. Some blood will be drawn for testing and a pre-molar tooth removed to determine age.

''Knowing the age of the bear may help us account for different behaviors,'' Villepique said. ''We can say maybe this younger bear didn't know where the resources were, or he was getting kicked out of good habitat by dominant bears.''

Trapped bears will be released after being fitted with GPS collars that record its location every two hours.

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