Bear-ly seasonable

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A fresh black bear track on the Canoe Lake #3 to Contact Lake portage on the Kenai Peninsula/Peter Snow photo


Skater Peter Snow never saw the bear on his backcountry adventure among the lakes of the Swanson River canoe route in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge over the weekend, but he saw its tracks in the fresh snow on one of the portages.


Fat-biker Jim Jager saw his bear late at night last week on an Anchorage bike trail, but thought at first he must be seeing someone’s dog. He expected the bears to be asleep for the winter by the Thanksgiving season in the state’s largest city.

He learned otherwise when the animal stood up on its hind legs to study him.

Both men were left wondering about the relationship of hibernation and weather in the unusual fall of 2018 for coastal Alaska.

Anchorage witnessed an October a staggering 10 degrees above normal. And November is on track to finish 7 to 8 degrees above normal.

Usually it is snowing this time of year on the Kenai and along the northeast rim of the Gulf of Alaska, and it was snowing in the mountains of both areas on Sunday.

But from about 2,000 feet down to sea level, there was generally rain. Early evening temperatures ranged from 37 in the city of Kenai to 35 in Anchorage to 41 in Palmer going south to north up Cook Inlet.

It has been like this for a while now.

Wildlife is responding to the change the way wildlife does. A couple thousand feet high in the Chugach Mountains, moose could be seen over the weekend feeding in willow thickets that would normally be lost or disappearing beneath the snows in normal years.

And some of the bears have clearly decided to postpone their long winter’s nap. Snow said he couldn’t help wonder but “how warming will affect hibernation patterns?”

Be afraid?

With anything and everything potentially related to climate change now under study, it should come as no surprise to learn that scientists have studied that very question.

The conclusion?

“After accounting for individual attributes, we found that the duration
and end of black bear hibernation was most strongly associated
with temperature.” wrote Heather Johnson of Colorado Parks and Recreation and a half-dozen colleagues who spent three years studying hibernating black bears in Colorado. “Indeed, temperature had twice
the magnitude of effect of either natural or human food availability in
decreasing the overall length of hibernation. Our results suggest that
ambient temperature serves as an important trigger of hibernation
behaviour in bears, and corroborates studies on marmots and brown bears that temperature is more influential at driving changes in hibernation than snowpack.”

Their study – “Human development and climate affect hibernation in a large carnivore with implications for human–carnivore conflicts” – was published in the Journal of Applied Ecology last year. 

In many ways their conclusions tracked and documented the observations of biologists monitoring Kodiak brown bears. They decades ago noticed that as long as food is available some of those bears don’t hibernate. 

“We found that the start of hibernation was most strongly associated
with individual bear attributes (reproductive status, age and mass), followed by natural food, fall minimum temperatures and development,” Johnson and her team wrote.

The research indicates that in unusually warm falls with adequate food available, more bears will be inclined to delay hibernation. But most of them will generally hibernate on schedule.

So even if some bears are awake later into the fall, your chances of encountering a bear go down as the numbers of bears out and about decrease.

The Colorado study does contains some other interesting observations:

  • “Compared to barren females, bears with cubs denned seven days earlier while bears with yearlings denned 13 days later.” (Translation: If you encounter a bear out this late in the season, it highly unlikely to be a sow with cubs of the year, but there is an increased chance it will be a sow with yearlings.)
  • “For every year a bear aged, hibernation started approximately 1 day earlier, and for every additional 10 kilograms a bear weighed, hibernation started two days later.” (Translation: The bear most likely to be out this time of year is a younger bear or a well-fed bear. The latter tend to avoid trouble. The former may try to challenge people but can be intimidated.)
  • “Both natural food and development delayed hibernation, although
    the effect of natural food was stronger. A proportionate 20 percent increase in natural food (based on the observed range of variation) was associated with a 3.8-day delay in hibernation.” (Translation: If you are in an area with late salmon runs or big berry patches still heavily laden despite the cold, you probably will have a better chance of encountering a bear. The study didn’t put a percentage on unnatural foods, ie. human handouts or garbage, but noted bears in populated areas with access to unnatural food sources all hibernate later. If bears are still getting into garbage in your neighborhood, you might want to talk to your neighbors or report them.)
  • “For each 1°C (1.8 degree F) increase in the average fall minimum temperature, hibernation was postponed 2.3 days.” (Translation: Yeah, warm temperatures can have a significant influence on bear behavior. A 10-degree spike in temperature, according to this calculation, could delay hormal hibernation by almost two weeks.)

Safety issues?

“Given that warmer temperatures and human development both reduced hibernation in our study, we predict that future trajectories of climate and
land use change may increase the length of the active bear season,
with the potential to cause subsequent increases in human–bear
conflicts and bear mortalities,” Johnson and her colleagues wrote.

The residents of Kodiak Island might tell you this problem has already begun.

City officials there revealed at mid-month that if the local brown bears didn’t go to bed soon, they’d be shot.

“Kodiak Police Department is working closely with Alaska Department of Fish and Game to deter the bears from getting into the (trash) roll carts, but those efforts have had short-lasting effects,” City manager Mike Tvenge told the city council, according to the Associated Press. “The bears are now becoming used to the non-lethal bullets and pepper shots.”

An extremely late fall and bears habituated to human food are the perfect storm for ursine problems.

The warmth in Kodiak has paralleled that in Anchorage. November is starting to look like the new October there and elsewhere, which might serve as a warning to Alaskans not to put the bear spray away as early as  in the past.

“Bear attacks occurred during every month of the year in Alaska,” researchers Tom Smith and Stephen Herrero wrote in an examination of Alaska bear attacks from 1880 to 2015. “Most (145 of 300; 48 percent) occurred during the summer months (June –Aug.), followed by autumn (Sept.–Nov.; 78 of 300; 26 percent), with equal numbers (38 of 300; 13 percent) in winter (Dec.–Feb.), and spring (Mar.–May).”

The last fatal, November attack in Alaska took place almost 20 years ago. Anchorage’s Ned Rasmussen, 53, was killed while deer hunting on Uganik Island in the Kodiak archipelago in 1999.  He was alone at the time, and no one was ever sure what happened.

But it appeared he might have shot a deer and been carrying it out while attacked. His backpack was never found. His rifle was found on an island ridgetop with bear hair stuck to the electrical tape over the muzzle to keep out snow. A wounded bear was seen in the area.

The year before Rasmussen died, 40-year-old Audelio Luis Cortes was killed in February on the Kenai while working on seismic lines. He disturbed a bear in a den.

The vast majority of November through April attacks have involved hunters, trappers or others working in the Alaska wilds in the winter. Herrero and Smith noted that early in the 20th Century nearly half of all bear attacks for any given year involved hunters, but they added that “the percentage of attacks involving hunters has declined while percentage of
those involving outdoor recreationists has increased.”

The numbers likely reflect a national shift in outdoor activities. Two years ago, University of Alaska Southeast professor Forest Wagner was attacked near Haines while skiing in April.

He was leading a mountaineering class of Mount Emmerich when he skied into a grizzly sow with a cub or cubs.  Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist Stephanie Sell later told Juneau radio station KTOO that Wagner was skiing in an area ideal for bear denning.

Winter is usually considered the “bear safe” season in Alaska because the odds of encountering bears now are very, very low; but there is still that rare possibility.

And given the conditions of the moment, it might be less rare than normal.

















19 replies »

  1. I think it’s outstanding that Medred has provided a venue for a remedial like Bryan. That he can free-range here and exercise his limited capabilities is a very human service! I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for those who are compromised, too.

  2. As we continue to live “Under an Ionized Sky” with chemtrails and next to the world’s largest Ionosphere Heater aka “The HAARP”, we will continue to see a tragic end to AK winter as we once knew it.
    Just as CA will have no end to their fire season, AK will see “wildfires” extend into Oct and Nov and interior rivers will no longer freeze and the Beaufort Sea will be “Open For Business”….
    Diaster Capitalism will net the neocons billions and billions in profits accross the globe.
    Elane Freeland writes:
    “On August 9, 2010, U.S. Senator Ted Stevens (Alaska) was investigating HAARP at the request of Alaskan bush pilot Theron “Terry” Smith when their aircraft crashed, killing Stevens and Smith but not NASA administrator Sean O’keefe, who was also on board. Smith’s son in law had been killed just days before in a C -17 crash at Elmendorf Air Force Base.”
    Remember when Nick Begich wrote a book (nearly 20 years ago) and tried to tell Alaskans: “Angels Do Not Play This HAARP”.

    • Wasn’t Alaska a hugh suvanna long before it was an arctic? Are climates to remain constant and reliable? Did man made events cause Alaska to become an arctic environment? Should Alaska remain and arctic region? Was there more fish and game resources when Alaska was a suvanana? umm

      • Al,
        These are all very good questions.
        The only concern I have is that this warming may reach a point where human and animal life are no longer sustainable on this planet (at least not above ground).
        2015 saw the largest hole in the “Ozone layer” ever, yet it went unreported by media?
        Greenhouses gases (including Methane released with natural gas projects) is at record levels around the globe.
        As temps continue to rise huge amounts of natural Methane stores will be released from the Arctic which may lead us to a “Venus Syndrome” in a few generations to come?
        “A runaway greenhouse effect is a state in which a net positive feedback between surface temperature and atmospheric opacity increases the strength of the greenhouse effect on a planet until its oceans boil away. An example of this is believed to have happened in the early history of Venus.”

    • Hey Steve, maybe we should try the good ole Chinese Communist or Soviet Socialist approach to a clean environment since Capitalism is such a planet killer?

      • Bryan,
        The environmental movement and profitability could be aligned in our Capitalist Economy, it is just TPTB who keep us divided.
        Walmart is beginning to see positive effects from following this new green business model.
        “Companies such as Tesco and WalMart, are not committing to environmental goals out of the goodness of their hearts, and neither should they. The reason for their actions is a simple yet powerful realisation that the environmental and economic footprints are most often aligned.”

        This is getting a bit away from my initial point that “geoengineering” may be exasperating our warming planet.

      • Seems the people have spoken. Sadly the taxpayer is on the hook for billions over this inefficient product.
        “General Motors announced Monday that it would cease production of the hybrid electric plug-in Volt and its gas-powered sister car the Cruze. The announcement came as part of a larger restructuring by the car company as it seeks to focus production around the bigger vehicles in favor with U.S. consumers.
        Both cars reflected the policies of the Obama administration but never really caught on with the car-buying public. They initially enjoyed a brief bout of enthusiasm from consumers but this was short-lived. Particularly after the price of oil fell dramatically, American consumers moved on to larger vehicles such as SUVs.”

      • Bryan,
        There are many reasons electric vehicles are not as popular…one reason is not as many charging stations at work.
        Another reason is consumers in urban areas prefer using Uber and renting Electric Scooters in many cities.
        “One of the biggest stories in technology this year is the exploding popularity of Bird, Lime, Skip, Spin and Scoot. They’re all electric scooter-rental services, and their vehicles are suddenly buzzing along city streets and sidewalks around the world.”

  3. Just a point of observation. As a trapper for many decades in interior alaska. I have seen signs of bears on my trap line.About every other year on average. I also hear of a trapper catching a bear in a set about the same every other year average. Neither of these observations are weather dependent. Last year just like this year warm weather and the lack of snow slowed me from getting all the trap line out. Yet i have not noticed any bear sign (so far). But in 2015 a much more normal weather. I had a grizzly bear walk a portion of the line just before christmas (-18).
    My believe has always been, if bears get out of the den in winter. They have been disturbed or there is a body condition event that makes them get up and look around. I also believe bear populations on average are higher and more people are using the outdoors more in the winter months. Outdoor enthusiast seam to report signs or sightings of bears more often because it is not normal for them to roaming around. But seasoned trapper and hunters have noticed things like this for years and normal don’t report them to an agency, but talk about it amongst themselves.
    So is there any more bears roaming around this time of the year or is there just more reports of bear sign or sightings being recorded?

    • Interesting Al. I have to say I’ve never run across bear sign during winter on my trapline. It was in prime black bear habitat but they seem to sleep sound enough there.
      Maybe just quieter around Dugan Hills.

      • Bill,i know of a coupleof trappers in Minto Flats who have sighted or seen sign of black bears over the years and one trapper found a cub wandering around his line. he captured it, warmed it up and surrender it to F&G. As for me, never seen any sign of blk. bears, but i was speaking of grizzly bears in the sawthoot mt.

      • For some reasons, those grizzlies tend to get up and wander around during winter and I would surely hope not to run into one at that time. I’m assuming here that they would tend to be a bit cranky then. And, over the years, I’ve read several instances of Alaskans getting into trouble with those bears even around their cabins in the Bush.
        All I can say is, it’s a good thing that bears hibernate as things would be a lot crazier in winter if they didn’t.

  4. The federal government’s Fourth National Climate Assessment, released on Friday, has gained praise from leftists and left-wing environmental groups as a dire warning of the coming death and destruction in the United States if we don’t stop global warming.
    But critics of the report, including scientists, have slammed it as “exaggeration,” bad science and even said its conclusions are “false.”
    “This latest climate report is just more of the same – except for even greater exaggeration, worse science, and added interference in the political process by unelected, self-serving bureaucrats,” Tim Huelskamp, president of the Heartland Institute.
    “This report from the climate alarmist Deep State in our government is even more hysterical than some United Nations reports,” Huelskamp noted. “The idea that global temperatures could rise as much as 12 degrees in the next 80 years is absurd and not a shred of actual data and observation supports that.”
    “This report is a scientific embarrassment,” Jay Lehr, science director at the Heartland Institute, said. “Not only does it rely on computer models to predict the climate through the end of the century, it relies on computer models from five years ago that have been laughably wrong, failing to get even close to reality since 2013.”
    “Happily, President Trump has on his advisory staff Dr. William Harper [of Princeton University], who knows how flawed these models are and will advise the president to not base a single aspect of U.S. policy upon them,” Lehr said.

    “This is the Deep State run amok,” James Taylor, a senior fellow on environment and energy policy at Heartland, said. “The Trump administration needs to root out the embedded leftists who are responsible for this one-sided propaganda report that is even less credible than Al Gore.”

    • Looks like a ‘scientific’ review from Alex Jones. Are you a secret InfoWars guy?…. I’m not saying that there isn’t an agenda here (on both sides of the climate change debate), however, are you trying to say that the global temps aren’t getting warmer?

      Good luck on your quest to keep Trump your 1st and last thought of the day! I think that it says to do that in the bible…


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