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Kodiak brown bears emerge early from dens after mild winter

Jerzy Shedlock

A seasonal cycle has begun anew in Southcentral Alaska as the thousands of brown bears on Kodiak Island emerge from their dens. But the bears woke up earlier than usual this year, and police have logged multiple calls of bear sightings as the enormous animals search for meals in a community with a growing sustainability initiative.

Alaska Fish and Game wildlife biologist Nathan Svoboda said the bears generally awake from hibernation at the end of April through the beginning of May. This year, they started climbing out of their dens at the beginning of April.

A mild winter and below-average snowfall are the main reasons for the bears' early arrival, Svoboda said.

Warmer-than-normal temperatures persisted around the northern portion of the island through winter. In October, the mean monthly temperature was 44.4 degrees, nearly 4 degrees above normal, according to the Alaska Climate Research Center. November, January and March saw warmer weather too. Snowfall around the city started off strong with more than 7 inches in November but accumulation fell off through March. In February, just 7 inches of snow fell, less than half of what was expected.

The island is home to between 3,000 and 3,500 brown bears, a dense population that translates to as many as 0.7 bears per square mile. Living with bears is simply a part of life on Kodiak, in both urban and rural areas. Kodiak bears are a unique subspecies, as they live exclusively on the islands in the Kodiak Archipelago and have been isolated from other bears for 12,000 years.

Kodiak's bears are the biggest in the world. A male can stand as tall as 10 feet when up on his hind legs and half that when walking on all four legs. They can weigh as much as 1,500 pounds. The bears start entering their dens in late October. Females and cubs enter first and males are last, though some of the males stay awake all winter.

Despite the bears' immense size, they tend to be more afraid of humans than vice versa, said Alaska Wildlife Trooper Will Ellis.

However, some bears get accustomed to Kodiak's human residents and the ready food supply they offer if garbage is left outside or unsecured, creating "problem bears."

"We have at least one or two problem bears, maybe three," Ellis said. "They've been coming into areas with Dumpsters and people's chicken coops."

Ellis said there have been no defense of life and property killings of bears so far this year on Kodiak. In summer 2013, at least two bears were shot and killed.

On April 20, the Kodiak Police Department received four separate reports of bears in the city. The department's terse dispatches share a theme: browns making meals of garbage. "(Caller) reports seeing a large bear dragging trash from their bin across the pond," and "Bear getting into community Dumpster; patrolled area and no sighting." The dispatches continue to list bear sightings.

The island is heavily forested in the north, where the city of Kodiak is located. Police Sgt. Michael Barnett said the terrain makes it easy for the bears to raid, then disappear.

"They can just come in, hit a street up and melt right back into the woods," Barnett said.

Ellis said the bears causing a ruckus outside the city limits find a readily available source of food and repeatedly visit the spots. Many of the incidents are happening near Woodland Drive, a city suburb. Two weeks ago, one of the bears attempted to dine in a resident's chicken coop but a neighbor shot the bear, wounding it, and it scurried off. Ellis said troopers never found the injured bear, and he believes it retreated from the area.

The trooper also contends more bears are making their way into populated areas due to a homegrown initiative of local produce and livestock called Sustainable Kodiak.

"There's been a lot more people putting in coops within the city limits and surrounding areas, so that's been an attractant," he said. "People are trying to grow their own produce, raise livestock, mainly chickens. The trend has been growing over the past several years, and one or two of the bears have really gotten in on that and pursued them."

Taking proactive measures against the bears works best, Svoboda said. People tend to protect their livestock with an electric fence after an initial raid. But once a brown gets a taste of chicken, "they realize they're pretty darn tasty," he said. The bears are not as easily deterred by an electric fence after that.

The wildlife biologist agreed the sustainability effort is part of the reason more bears have been spotted in town but said their early arrival is coupled with less food. The brown bears currently don't have as many options as vegetation still growing, he said.

Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy@alaska dispatch.com.


By JERZY SHEDLOCK
jerzy@alaskadispatch.com