The grizzly bear that three times charged Homer resident Carlos Lozano this week before being driven off with bear spray really shouldn’t have come as a big surprise, but it did as these sorts of things usually do.
Lozano knew there’d been a bear out in the Fritz Creek area about 10 miles east of the city of 5,000 near the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula. He’d seen tracks in the snow. But nobody really expects to run into a grizzly in February in Alaska when the bears are supposed to be still soundly asleep in hibernation.
Or at least nobody expected this sort of encounter in the Alaska before global warming. The temperature in Homer on Wednesday was near 40 degrees. The average temperature for the time period used to be about 26 degrees.
“Here in Homer, February is the new March,” Lozano said. “I feel that there are many changes in the wild animal world. Perhaps we are just beginning to see the changes.”
He isn’t sure he likes the change he experienced on his last hike. Lozano’s February bear encounter, which ended safely thanks to his decision to grab a can of bear spray just in case, left the man shaken.
“I was walking on a very old snowed in but well traveled trail,” Lozano said via a text. “We surprised each other. I backed off. He bluffed charged two times, each time getting closer to where I was. The third time at four feet, I used my bear spray which I had at the ready to spray!
“It veered off crashing through some low brush.”
Lozano beat a retreat in the opposite direction toward Hutler Road having experienced a lot more excitement than he expected when he went to explore earlier observations of bear sign.
“I was up there about 10 days earlier and saw a set of bear tracks and several wolf tracks, so I was curious what was going on during my absence,” he said. He did not expect to find any of the animals which had left the tracks. One rarely finds the animals associated with the tracks.
Even more rarely does one find a grizzly out of the den in February on the Alaska mainland, though a 198os study on 100-mile-long Kodiak Island about 90 miles southwest of the Kenai in the Gulf of Alaska found the brown/grizzly bears living in the warmer climate there sometimes display different behavior.
“Den emergence…generally began in early April, although a few individuals left their dens as early as February,” reported Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Larry Van Daele and others.
“Two notable anomalies in denning behavior were observed in this study,” the authors noted. “Use of multiple dens and failure to enter dens.”
Both of those behaviors appeared linked to warmer weather.
“Some males were active throughout the winter during every year of the study,” the authors wrote. “More than 25 percent of the radio-collared males at Terror Lake did not den during at least one of the winters of the study….We found no published reports of non-denning brown/grizzly bears (elsewhere), but non-denning black bears have been reported in Virginia and North Carolina.
“The relatively warm winter climate and long seasonal availability of food probably allow some bears to remain active for longer periods of time on Kodiak compared to other portions of brown/grizzly bear range. Non-denning bears apparently spent much of their time bedded in shrub or spruce microhabitats and intermittently traveled relatively short distances within their normal ranges. Although these bears never entered dens, their behavior appeared to be similar to the ‘walking hibernation’ described by Nelson et al for bears that had recently emerged from hibernation.”
The important take away message here? If you encounter bear tracks in the snow this time of year, there is a much higher likelihood of a bear being in the area than if you encounter summer bear tracks in the mud, a common occurrence almost anywhere Alaska.
And the good news is that the Kodiak study found the bears out in winter were all males, meaning the odds of running into a aggressively protective sow with cubs remains highly unlikely.
Lozano believes the bear he ran into was a two-year-old on its first winter away from its mother, although it didn’t look like a young bear when it first charged.
“At that time, he looked f—— huge,” the man said. “In retrospect, not mature, square head. Lots of daylight between his belly and the snow.”
Overall the bear appeared healthy as well, Lozano added.
“It was not scrawny at all…a few rubs No scars that I could see. And he was pissed.”
Lozano was left mighty thankful for the bear spray, which has proven a valuable deterrent against bear attacks over the past 30 years in Alaska.
“I was charged by a bear and survived, so every minute after this incident is being enjoyed to the very max,” Lozano said.