In the past 20 years, bear viewing has become increasingly popular on Kodiak and other parts of Alaska. The most accessible bear-viewing location on Kodiak, Frazer River, had over 1,100 people come in 2007. Visitor numbers have been increasing at about 10% annually and development of additional bear viewing areas on Kodiak is planned.
Also, other bear viewing opportunities exist through air-taxi, charter boat, remote lodge, and trekking operations on the archipelago. Although bear-viewing is often considered a «nonconsumptive» use, it can have serious impacts on bear populations if it is not conducted properly.
Most viewing occurs at places where bears congregate because of feeding opportunities that are critical to their survival. If some bears avoid these areas because people are there, those bears may not get the fat and protein they need to make it through the upcoming winter.
Consequently, unmanaged bear viewing could affect several bears, especially productive sows with cubs. Often, bear-viewing and bear-hunting are considered incompatible. Even if the bear population is healthy and bear hunting is sustainable, ethical questions arise especially if hunting occurs near viewing areas and either during or soon after the viewing season.
Many feel that it is not fair to encourage bears to be close to people during the summer, only to allow them to be shot in the fall. The Kodiak bear plan recognized bear hunting as a legitimate, traditional, and biologically justifiable activity. It recommended that agencies find ways to make bear hunting and bear viewing compatible on the archipelago.
Changes in land status
In 1971, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) resolved many long-standing land issues with aboriginal Alaskans statewide. The impacts were felt strongly on the archipelago as large areas were conveyed to the Native corporations. Federal management of the National Forest lands on Afognak was transferred to Native Corporation ownership with passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980 (ANILCA)
In 1975, construction of a logging road began on Afognak Island, and timber harvesting began in 1977. In 1979, work began on an environmental impact statement for the Terror Lake hydroelectric project on Kodiak Island. That project included an earthen dam on Terror Lake with Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge and a 10 km (6 mi) tunnel through a mountain ridge to a penstock and powerhouse in the Kizhuyak River drainage.
The hydro project was the first significant invasion of inland bear habitat on Kodiak Island. To address the opposition encountered from the public and agencies, a mitigation settlement was negotiated in 1981 which included brown bear research and establishment of the Kodiak Brown Bear Trust. The hydroelectric project was completed in 1985.
Bears were not directly harmed by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, although some were displaced from traditional feeding and traveling areas by cleanup crews. No one was injured by a bear, and no Kodiak bears were killed. To mitigate the adverse impacts of the spill, Exxon reached a settlement with the state and federal governments.
Paradoxically, the impacts of the oil spill and the subsequent cleanup and settlement proved to be beneficial to bears on Kodiak. Bear-safety training exposed thousands of workers to factual information about bears, and money from the settlement fund was used for funding land acquisitions.
By the close of the 20th century, over 80% of the refuge lands that had been lost as a result of ANCSA and ANILCA were reinstated into the refuge, either through direct purchase or by means of conservation easements. Lands were also purchased in America, Westtown, and Shuyak Islands and transferred into state ownership.
The Kodiak Brown Bear Trust coordinated a coalition of sportsmen and other wildlife conservation groups from around the nation to lobby for use of settlement funds to acquire Kodiak lands. The groups also directly contributed funding to protect small parcels of important bear habitat around the islands.
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Ursus middendorffi sp. nov. Kadiak Bear
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Hair colors range from blonde to orange (typically females or bears from southern parts of the archipelago) to dark brown. Cubs often retain a white «natal ring» around their neck for the first few years of life. The Kodiak bear’s color is similar to that of its close relatives, the mainland American and Eurasian brown bears.
Russian hunters came to the area in the late 18th century to capitalize on the abundant fur resources. Bear hides were considered a «minor fur» and sold for about the same price as river otter pelts. The number of bears harvested increased substantially when sea otter populations declined and after the United States acquired Alaska in 1867, bear harvests on Kodiak increased, peaking at as many as 250 bears per year.
Commercial fishing activities increased in the late 1880s and canneries proliferated throughout the archipelago. Bears were viewed as competitors for the salmon resource and were routinely shot when seen on streams or coasts. At the same time, sportsmen and scientists had recognized the Kodiak bear as the largest in the world, and they voiced concerns about overharvesting the population.
The bear is important to the Alutiiq people. Its Alutiiq name is Taquka’aq (Bear), with the pronunciation varying between Northern and Southern dialects.
Kodiak bears begin entering their dens in late October. Pregnant sows are usually the first to go to dens; males are the last. Males begin emerging from their dens in early April, while sows with new cubs may stay in dens until late June. Bears living on the north end of Kodiak Island tend to have longer denning periods than bears in the southern areas.
Most Kodiak bears dig their dens in hill or mountain sides and they use a wide variety of denning habitats depending on which part of the archipelago they live. Almost a quarter of the adult bears forgo denning, staying somewhat active throughout the winter.
Distribution and density
This brown bear population only occurs on the islands of the Kodiak Archipelago (Kodiak, Afognak, Shuyak, Raspberry, Uganik, Sitkalidak, and adjacent islands).
The Kodiak bear population was estimated to include 3,526 bears in 2005, yielding an estimated archipelago-wide population density of 270 bears per 1000 km2 (700 per 1000 sq.mi). During the past decade the population has been slowly increasing.
Guided hunters and competition for resources
Professional interest in guided Kodiak bear hunts and a concern for unregulated resource use in frontier lands such as Alaska prompted the territorial government’s newly established Alaska Game Commission to abolish commercial bear hunting (selling the hides) on the archipelago in 1925.
The impacts of the new regulations seemed to restore bear populations on the Kodiak islands. By the 1930s, ranchers on northeast Kodiak reported an increase in bear problems and demanded action. Bears were also seen as a threat to the expanding commercial salmon-fishing industry.
To address the dilemma of conserving bears while protecting cattle, salmon, and people, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge by executive order in 1941. The 7,700 km2 (1,900,000 acres) refuge roughly encompasses the southwestern two-thirds of Kodiak Island, Uganik Island, the Red Peaks area on northwestern Afognak Island, and all of Ban Island.
Alaska achieved statehood in 1959 and assumed responsibility for managing the state’s wildlife. The Alaska Board of Game reduced bear-hunting seasons on Afognak and Raspberry Islands and on the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, but liberalized bear seasons on nonrefuge lands on Kodiak.
During the 1960s, state biologists worked with ranchers along the Kodiak road system to examine and reduce the predation problem. Biologists reported that cattle and bears were not compatible on the same ranges and potential solutions included poisons, fences to isolate cattle ranges, and aerial shooting of bears.
Habitat and feeding habits
The islands of the Kodiak Archipelago have a subpolar oceanic climate with cool temperatures, overcast skies, fog, windy conditions and moderate to heavy precipitation throughout most of the year. Although the archipelago only covers about 13,000 km2 (5,000 sq mi), a rich variety of topography and vegetation ranges from dense forests of Sitka spruce on the northern islands, to steep, glaciated mountains rising to Koniag Peak’s 1,360 m (4,470 ft) along the central spine of Kodiak Island, to rolling hills and flat tundra on the south end of the archipelago.
About 14,000 people live on the archipelago, primarily in and around the city of Kodiak and six outlying villages. Roads and other human alterations are generally limited to Afognak Island and the northeastern part of Kodiak Island.
Bears live throughout the archipelago, adapting to local resources and retaining relatively small home ranges and comparable densities in most habitats. Emerging vegetation and animals that died during the winter are the first foods bears eat in the spring.
As summer progresses, a wide variety of vegetation supplies nutritional needs until salmon return. Salmon runs extend from May through September on most of the archipelago and bears consume the five species of Pacific salmon that spawn in local streams and lakes.
In the late summer and early fall, bears consume several types of berries. Bears also feed on wind-rowed seaweed and invertebrates on some beaches throughout the year. Although deer are abundant on the archipelago and mountain goats are abundant on Kodiak Island, few Kodiak bears actively prey on them.
Another food source available year-round is the garbage supplied by the human population of Kodiak Island. As climate change causes elderberries to ripen earlier, berry season is now overlapping with salmon season and some bears are abandoning salmon runs to focus on the berries.
Bears on Kodiak are naturally active during the day, but when faced with competition for food or space, they adopt a more nocturnal (active at night) lifestyle. This behavior is especially evident in the bears that live near and within Kodiak City.
Kodiak bears do not defend territories, but they do have traditional areas that they use each year (home ranges). Because of the rich variety of foods available on Kodiak, the bears on the archipelago have some of the smallest home ranges of any brown bear populations in North America and a great deal of overlap occurs among the ranges of individual bears.
Kodiak bear research and habitat protection is done cooperatively by the ADF&G and Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. Bear hunting is managed by the ADF&G, and hunting regulations are established by the Alaska Board of Game. Currently, a finely tuned management system distributes hunters in 32 different areas during two seasons (spring:
April 1 – May 15, and fall: October 25 – November 30). Each year, about 4,500 people apply for the 496 permits offered for Kodiak bear hunts (two-thirds to Alaska residents, one-third to nonresidents). Nonresidents are required to hire a registered guide who is authorized to hunt in a particular area, and this can cost from $10,000–$22,000.
All hunters must come into the Alaska Department of Fish and Game office in Kodiak prior to going into the field for a brief orientation and must check out before they leave the island. Every bear that is legally killed on the archipelago must be inspected by an ADF&
G wildlife biologist before it can be taken from the islands. Pelts receive a stamp from an ADF&G officer if the hunter and guide provide proper documentation to prove licensing. Pelts cannot be transported or legally preserved or sold without the official stamp.
Hunting laws are strictly enforced by the ADF&G officers who often have the full support of the local community. Illegal hunting and fishing is frowned upon by the community which maintains a healthy respect for the island’s environmental laws, as well.
Since statehood, the reported number of Kodiak bears killed by hunters has ranged from 77 (1968–1969) to 206 (1965–1966). From 2000 to 2006, an average of 173 Kodiak bears were killed by hunters each year (118 during the fall season and 55 in the spring season).
Over 75% of those were males. An additional nine bears were reported killed annually in defense of life or property during the same time. The number of large, trophy-sized bears (total skull size at least 70 cm [28 inches]) killed by hunters in recent years has been increasing.
Interactions with people
Usually, Kodiak bears attempt to avoid encounters with people. The most notable exceptions to this behavior pattern occur when bears are surprised, threatened, or attracted by human food, garbage, or hunter-killed game. However, there has been an increase in Kodiak encounters due to increases in local population as well as increased hunting of Kodiak bears.
Bear safety precautions aim at avoiding such situations, understanding bear needs and behavior, and learning how to recognize the warning signs bears give when stressed.
Polar bear size
Adult polar bear males weigh up to 350–700 kg (772–1,543 lb) with the total length measuring around 2.4–3 metres (7 ft 10 in–9 ft 10 in).
Read More: How Tall is a Polar Bear Standing Up?
Mature females average 150 – 250 kg (331–551 lb) in weight. She had a total length of 1.8–2.4 metres (5 ft 11 in–7 ft 10 in). They can attain the maximum weight of 500 kg (1,102 lb) during pregnancy.
Males stand 122 to 160 cm (4 ft 0 in to 5 ft 3 in) at the shoulder height.
Early human occupants of the archipelago when the land was locked into the ice age looked to the sea for their sustenance. At that time, Kodiak Natives (Alutiiqs) occasionally hunted bears, using their meat for food, hides for clothing and bedding, and teeth for adornment.
Traditional stories often revolved around the similarity between bears and humans, and around the mystical nature of bears because of their proximity to the spirit world.
Reproduction and survival
Kodiak bears reach sexual maturity at age five, but most sows are over nine years old when they successfully wean their first litter. The average time between litters is four years. Sows continue to produce cubs throughout their lives, but their productivity diminishes after they are 20 years old. Mating season for Kodiak bears is during May and June.
They are serially monogamous (having one partner at a time), staying together from two days to two weeks. As soon as the egg is fertilized and divides a few times, it enters a state of suspended animation until autumn when it finally implants on the uterine wall and begins to grow again.
Cubs are born in the den during January or February. Weighing less than 450 g (1 lb) at birth with little hair and closed eyes, they suckle for several months, emerging from the den in May or June, weighing 6.8–9.
1 kilograms (15–20 pounds). Typical litter sizes on Kodiak are two or three cubs, with a long-term average of 2.
4 cubs per litter. However, Kodiak bears have six functional nipples and litters up to six cubs have been reported. Sows are sometimes seen with five or six cubs in tow, probably due to adopting cubs from other litters. Most cubs stay with their mothers for three years.
Kodiak bears that have recently left their mothers, at ages 3–5 years, have high mortality rates with only 56% of males and 89% of females surviving. Most young female bears stay within or near their mother’s home range, while most males move farther away.
Most adult sows die of natural causes (56%), while most adult male bears are killed by hunters (91%). The oldest known bear in the wild was 27 years old, and the oldest sow was 35.
Taxonomist C.H. Merriam was first to recognize the Kodiak bear as a unique subspecies of the brown bear, and he named it «Ursus middendorffi» in honor of the celebrated Baltic naturalist, Dr. A. Th. von Middendorff. Subsequent taxonomic work merged all North American brown bears into a single species (Ursus arctos).
Genetic samples from bears on Kodiak have shown that they are related to brown bears on the Alaska Peninsula and Kamchatka, Russia, and all brown bears roughly north of the US. Kodiak bears have been genetically isolated since at least the last ice age (10,000 to 12,000 years ago) and very little genetic diversity exists within the population. Although the current population is healthy and productive, and has shown no overt adverse signs of inbreeding, it may be more susceptible to new diseases or parasites than other, more diverse brown bear populations.
Genetic diversity and endangerment
The International Union for Conservation of NatureRed List does not list subspecies. The brown bear species, of which the Kodiak subspecies is a member, is listed as Lower Risk or Least Concern. The Kodiak is not listed as an endangered species by the Endangered Species Act of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service.