Monthly Archives: February 2018

The History of the Relationship between Humans and Kodiak Bears

According to archaeological evidence, Kodiak Island has been inhabited by humans for the last 7500 years, and bears were already on the island when humans arrived. The earliest human occupants are referred to as the Ocean Bay tradition, and while little is known about the relationship Ocean Bay people had with bears, bear bones have been found in archaeological digs of sites dating from this period, indicating they did hunt bears. Interestingly, though, few bear skulls have been found in excavations of Ocean Bay sites, suggesting that the head may have been left in the field as part of a ceremonial practice or a sign of respect for the animal. If the Ocean Bay culture was similar to other early northern cultures, then it is likely bears were revered and perhaps even viewed as emissaries between man and the spirit world.

The Ocean Bay tradition lasted 4000 years and was replaced by the Kachemak tradition which lasted approximately 3200 years and was gradually replaced, beginning 900 years ago, by Alutiiq (Koniag) society. As time progressed, the human population on Kodiak grew, and conflicts between humans and bears undoubtedly increased as well. Excavations at Koniag village sites uncovered a greater number of bear skulls than were found in more ancient sites, indicating either bears were more heavily hunted, or the humans had abandoned the practices that forbade bringing skulls into the villages.

Russian explorers arrived on Kodiak in the early 1760s, and while the Russians were impressed by the huge bears inhabiting the archipelago, their main interest was harvesting sea otters and shipping the valuable pelts to China. Bears were also hunted, but a bear hide was only worth two percent as much as a sea otter pelt. Once the Russians depleted the sea otter population, they more actively sought out other fur-bearing animals including bears, and between 1821 and 1842, 268 bear hides per year were shipped from the Alaska colonies. In 1867, the United States purchased Alaska from Russia, and the brown bear harvest more than doubled, with an average of 548 hides shipped per year from 1867 to 1880.

Russians brought livestock to Kodiak, and when bears began killing the livestock, especially cattle, they were considered a nuisance to be eliminated. At nearly the same time, more efficient methods of fishing by commercial fishing operations on the island led to a depletion of salmon stocks and created greater competition between humans and bears for the fish. Although the U.S. government never set an official bounty on bears as they did on eagles and Dolly Varden, bears were routinely shot, and some canneries offered private bounties on bears.

The Boone and Crockett Club, a wildlife conservation organization, was formed in 1887, and one of its goals was to work for the preservation of wild game in the United States. Thanks to the efforts of the Boone and Crockett Club, the Game and Wild Bird Preservation and Disposition Act, or the Lacey Act as it is commonly called, was signed into law in 1900. This important law provided the first legal protection for wildlife, including the Kodiak bear, in the U.S.

When exotic big-game hunters learned about the huge bears on Kodiak Island, many journeyed to Kodiak in pursuit of a trophy, and the Kodiak bear gained a reputation as one of the ultimate trophy animals in the world. As interest in guided Kodiak bear hunts increased, the Alaska territorial government set strict limits on commercial hunting and selling of bear hides. In 1925, the Alaska Game Commission required any nonresident hunter in Alaska to be accompanied in the field by a registered big-game guide. In the late 1920s and 1930s, commercial and sport hunting were strictly regulated on Kodiak, while shooting bears to protect cattle was not only encouraged but was government sanctioned.

On August 19th, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8857, creating the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge which encompassed Uganik Island and most of the southwestern portion of Kodiak Island. The purpose of the refuge was to preserve the natural feeding and breeding range of the Kodiak bear and other wildlife.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, cattle ranchers and those involved in the salmon industry fought for stricter predator-control measures against Kodiak bears, while bear hunters and conservationists from across America voiced loud opinions against the concept of bear control, alarmed that the Kodiak bear could easily be wiped out in a few years. After considering all opinions, the Alaska Game Commission in the late 1950s opted against any form of bear control and did not increase the length of the hunting season on Kodiak.

This interesting, complex relationship between humans and bears continues to this day. I’ll tell you more about this relationship over the next two weeks, beginning with the battle between ranchers and Kodiak bears in the 1960s.

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How Do Bears Regulate Their Body Temperature, And What Diseases Do They Get?

 

TEMPERATURE REGULATION

A bear’s body temperature is similar to a human’s and ranges between ninety-eight and ninety-nine degrees Fahrenheit (36.7- 37.2C).  Bears do not have sweat glands, though, and the lack of sweat glands coupled with their insulating fur can make staying cool on a hot, sunny day a challenge. Bears employ a variety of techniques to solve this problem, including resting in the shade, stretching out on their bellies on the cool ground, panting like a dog, sitting or lying in a cold stream or the ocean, sprawling on snow patches, and shaking off water when they emerge from a stream. They are also able to dissipate heat through their paws which are well supplied with blood vessels, and they lose heat through areas with minimal fur such as the face, ears, nose, belly and the insides of the legs. To cool down, bears sometimes recline on the ground and spread their legs wide.

 

DISEASES

Bears are susceptible to a variety of diseases and parasites. Internal parasites include the trichinella worm (trichinosis), trematodes, nematodes, lungworms, hookworms, flukes, blood parasites, intestinal worms, and tapeworms. Tapeworms are especially prevalent in Kodiak bears because they eat large quantities of raw fish. It is not uncommon to see a bear in the summer months with a several-foot-long tapeworm trailing from its anus. Notice the tapeworm in this photo.
Bears can also suffer from many of the same ailments that affect other mammals, including arthritis. Traumatic injuries can be very devastating to a bear, especially if the injuries affect the bear’s ability to procure food or protect himself. Poor teeth can directly impact a bear’s ability to eat, and any factor leading to inadequate fat reserves before hibernation can result in starvation.

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The Kodiak Archipelago is home to 3500 bears and 13,600 humans, so how do the bears and humans interact? Next week,  I’ll tackle the topic of bears and humans.

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Kodiak Bear Cubs

A Kodiak bear cub fetus develops for only two-and-one-half months, so the cubs are very underdeveloped when they are born. No other mammals except marsupials have such immature offspring at birth. The cubs weigh 1/400 to 1/1000 of what they will weigh as adults. If the same were true for humans, a grown man might weigh as much as 8000 lbs. Cubs are born at such a premature stage of development because the mother must provide nutrients for her unborn young while she is in hibernation and not eating. She provides these nutrients by breaking down her body protein, which causes her to lose muscle mass. If she carried the cubs longer, she would lose too much muscle mass and would not be able to move by the end of hibernation. While a shorter gestation period produces underdeveloped cubs, the mother maintains enough physical strength to be able to care for her offspring. Cubs continue to develop after they are born.

At birth, brown bear cubs are nearly helpless. They can detect temperature changes and move closer to their mother to seek warmth, and they are also able to find the sow’s nipples to nurse. They weigh about one pound (.5 kg) and are blind, deaf, and unable to smell. They are covered by a fine hair and are toothless, weak, and uncoordinated.

A brown bear sow has three pairs of nipples. She may nurse on her side in the den but normally nurses in a sitting or partially-reclined position after emerging from the den. A bear’s milk contains an average of 33% fat, as compared to human milk which contains 3.5% fat. Bear’s milk consists of 11 to 15% protein and 0.3 to 0.6% carbohydrates. Due to this diet of rich milk, brown bear cubs grow rapidly.

A cub’s eyes open about four weeks after birth, and he begins to walk at six weeks. A Kodiak bear cub’s weight doubles every two months during the first year. The cubs are completely dependent on nursing for 24 weeks and may continue to nurse for as long as 82 weeks.

On Kodiak, most cubs stay with their mothers for three years, and nearly half of all Kodiak bear cubs die before they leave their mothers. Causes of death range from starvation, accidental separation from their mother, deliberate abandonment by their mother, fights with other bears, accidents, and infanticide, most often, but not always, by large boars.

Researchers have postulated that the reason for infanticide, the killing of the young of one’s species, is so the male can eliminate the offspring of another male, bring the female into estrus, mate with her, and pass along his genes to the next generation. While this theory might prove true for some species, it doesn’t make sense for bears. For one thing, bears are seasonal breeders in the spring, but boars often kill cubs in the summer when the female cannot go into estrus again. During the mating season, a boar would have to kill all the cubs in the litter for the mother to go into estrus, and even then, the female would not become sexually receptive for several weeks. Unless he waited around for the sow to be ready to mate again, the boar who killed the cubs probably would not be the bear who eventually mates with the mother. Also, females are sometimes the perpetrators of infanticide.

A friend of mine saw a large male bear walk up to a den, stick his head in the den, pull out a cub, shake it to death, and continue on his way. It is difficult to coordinate the actions of that boar with any biological theory. We humans often feel the need to understand the purpose behind every animal behavior, yet we do many things with little or no purpose in mind.

Next week I’ll write more about bear biology and behavior. Please let me know if you have any questions or comments.

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