Bears are back, so be aware whether you can see them or not

Everyone likes to talk about bears. Bears appear in everyone’s yard around Delta Junction. They are on every trail along the Denali Highway. Folks spot them everywhere along the Richardson Highway. Except me. I have come to believe I may be colorblind to brown and black. Then again, I am a proponent of the theory that all animals must leave tracks.

Once upon a time, back in the late 1960s, we were hunting along the Denali Highway, a friend of my dad’s and me. We were rattling along in Ole’s old Chevy somewhere around Milepost 100 — a lady comes running out in the road screaming that a bear was after her. Of course, Ole slammed on the brakes, he didn’t want to hit the gal, he wanted to shoot the bear. The woman gasped out that she was picking blueberries and “a bear came up over the hill right at her.” This was back in the day when we carried guns on our laps with a shell up — there were sometimes critters on the highway besides other hunters.

We raced over the hill, only to find a medium-size porcupine nosing at a tipped blueberry bucket. In another instance, a girl I know well, and who should know better, came tearing into our yard on the Maclaren with the news that there was a bear on the hillside in Crazy Notch, just 3 miles down the road. The family and I grabbed binoculars and headed to the Notch to get a look at the big grizzly. Alas, another porcupine. It seems that porcupines could account for a substantial portion of long-distance grizzly sightings.

Moose feeding in the willows also get converted into bears. Tracks easily give the truth, though most people really want to see a bear rather than just another moose. It is true that the Denali Highway has a fair number or bears in some locations. The hotspot for bears along the highway is the Upper Susitna River. Bear tracks are common on the sandbars along the Su and on the area trails.

Bears like to feed on various vegetation along the wide gravel plain of the Susitna and Nenana rivers. There are also a good number of calving moose in that area. Grizzlies like them also. In the ’90s Alaska Department of Fish and Game decided it needed to reduce brown bear predation on moose in Unit 13 along the Denali Highway.

Fish and Game was mandated by the Board of Game to the reduce bear population by half.

That has never happened, in spite of liberalized seasons and a mostly blurry-eyed view when it came to method and means of enforcement. The bear population has remained stable or increasing. Study on top of study has been done to determine bear populations and what might be a maximum sustained harvest objective. Radio collars have been used for decades with good success on individual bears, but extrapolation of data received has been difficult. Counting bears has been the thorn. Unless the population is a known quantity, then the data retrieved from a couple dozen animals is suspect.

The newest technique and the one with the most promise is genetic information gained from hair samples. It is truly amazing what one can get from a DNA sample. Researchers can tell the gender and individual ID. Hormones in the hair sample can indicate if the bear is stressed and what the bear has made a staple in its diet. Age can’t yet be determined, but that is a future possibility.

Fish and Game sets hair traps, scent piles — blood or some other attracter — surrounded by barbed wire. A grizzly comes along and checks out the great smells, finds nothing to eat and leaves. Ninety-nine percent of the time there are a few strands of hair left on the wire. Traps can be set in a grid pattern, thus providing a great new tool in determining population density.

Meanwhile, late April has arrived. Snowmachine-mounted bear hunters are moving into the high country along the Denali Highway. The bears may be a bit later exiting their dens this year because of a colder-than-normal April and heavy snow. However, snowmobile conditions are the best since spring hunts were authorized 40 years ago. Snowmachines are fast, dependable and easy to ride when compared with the machines of yesteryear. A 100-mile trek through the mountains is common these days.

Yes, there will be tracks. Tracks can be followed almost anywhere. It isn’t legal to chase down a bear and shoot it from a snowmobile. Most folks abide by the law because it is their nature to hunt fairly. The few that are inclined to want to run the bear down and shoot it may hesitate because they understand that a snowmachine track, following a bear track for 10 or 15 miles, is a reasonably sure indicator of an illegal hunt.

In spite of liberalized method/means and extended hunting seasons, bear populations virtually everywhere in the state are stable. There have been temporary deductions in selected localities, but it has not lasted. Alaska is not populated heavily enough to drive out the bears. If one gets away from the road, it is still the bears’ world. The facts are that humans kill less than 2,000 bears annually statewide. That isn’t many bears in an area of 586,000 square miles. Non-residents take the lion’s share.

The snow will soon melt, possibly, and soon we will be back in the summer bear-sighting mode. Most folks who think they see a bear off the side of the road don’t immediately go running out to check tracks and make a sure ID. Rightly so. And I, in my colorblind state, will continue to be skeptical of almost all “sightings.” However, there is a part of me that rejoices that people still have an unreasonable fear, satisfaction and respect for one of the greatest symbols of true wilderness in our great state.

John Schandelmeier

Outdoor opinion columnist John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.