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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