Bear-human interactions in and around the city of Kodiak have not been high this year, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Nate Svoboda, area biologist for ADF&G, provided an update to the Kodiak Island Borough Assembly at a recent work session.
“Pretty amazingly, we’ve had very little bear activity in town this summer,” Svoboda said. Between Jan. 1 through June 24, he had received only one report of bad behavior. Svoboda told the Kodiak Daily Mirror on Wednesday that the number of reports of negative bear behavior in Kodiak neighborhoods had increased slightly since his report to the assembly.
“We’ve received a few calls about someone purposefully leaving dumpsters open on Selief Lane, and a bear has been reported getting into trash,” Svoboda said. A similar incident has been reported in the Bells Flats area.
ADF&G is investigating both incidents in partnership with the Kodiak Police Department in the city and Alaska Wildlife Troopers in the borough.
Traditionally, bear activity tends to be highest in spring and summer, when natural food sources are scarce. He said bear activity actually started to decrease last fall after trash roll carts were removed from specific areas around town.
Svoboda said the number of calls he received regarding bad bear behavior in the first six months of 2020 dropped to approximately 50, down from about 90 such calls in the first half of 2019.
“While it’s too early to tell if this is a reflection of a decrease in accessible carts and implementation of bear resistant carts, it is interesting,” Svoboda said. He said another layer of interest to last fall’s decrease was that it came against the backdrop of a presumed increase in the bear population after the fall hunting season was closed due to the COVID pandemic.
Svoboda said a normal fall harvest might claim 85 to 120 bears. Only 19 were harvested in fall 2020 “so there were a lot more bears on the landscape.”
“I don’t want to jump to conclusions, because there are many different reasons behind this and many factors that impact bear behavior,” Svoboda said. But the reduction in available trash sources provides a strong correlation, he added.
Predicting continued bear behavior in the summer is difficult, Svoboda said.
“Bear behavior in town typically depends on a variety of factors,” he said, with the driving factor being a lack of resources in the wild.
When they have berries, or grass or salmon in the wild, this typically means fewer bears in town, he said. “Hopefully, we have a good berry year and a good salmon year because that helps us reduce bear conflict in town.”
However, Svoboda said the more attractants that are available — live poultry, accessible food, unsecured pets — the more likely bears will come into town.
For example, “bring your bird feeders in because birds don’t need it this time of year,” Svoboda said. “Clean your grill — there are things that are pretty common sense but people don’t always think about.”
He added that bears have a keen sense of smell — about three to four times better than a dog.
“We can’t even grasp the way a bear uses its nose,” he said. “They’re great at finding food — both natural food such as berries and salmon and non-natural food such as trash.”
In his presentation last week, Svoboda included an overview on bear habits and ways to avoid negative incidents.
One way to deter bears from coming into neighborhoods is to “condition” them.
“Bears are very smart, and we guess somewhere between a dog and a chimpanzee,” Svoboda said. “Although there are a few ways to condition them — such as hazing or cracker shells or rubber buckshot — the most successful method is to not provide a ‘reward’ to these animals for their bad behavior.”
“Rewards,” he noted, include providing any kind of food, such as fish if a bear moves toward a fisherman, or improperly storing food or trash.
“If a bear breaks into someone’s trash and is ‘rewarded’ by finding food, that’s just establishing a negative behavior,” Svoboda said.
“It is important to nip that in the bud” because conditioned bad behaviors can be taught by bear sows to her cubs,” Svoboda said.
Cubs often stay with the mother for two to three years. Sows teach the cubs behavior, “including how to hunt for food and interact with humans.”
Svodoba said removing a bear from its natural range does no good, whether by shooting it or relocating it, “because another bear will come along and take its place.”
A constant challenge ADF&G faces includes overfilled or improperly stored trash bins and dumpsters.
“It has gotten better, but it remains an issue,” Svodoba said. “Alaska Waste does everything it can to make sure these dumpsters are emptied in a timely fashion, but sometimes it can’t always happen.”
While bear-resistant roll carts seem to help, Svoboda said it does no good “if they are overfilled or not properly latched.”
Another continued challenge is the occasional improper securing of livestock and poultry. Svodoba said ADF&G continues to press the importance of electric fencing works, and making sure that gates are secured.
“Education and outreach is something we do continuously,” he said. “We have an ephemeral community with a lot of people moving in and out on a regular basis, so education is a continuing thing I stick with.”