Category Archives: Kodiak Bear

Kodiak Bear biology, behavior, and news

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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How Large is a Kodiak Bear’s Home Range?

 

Brown bears are not considered territorial, but they do have home ranges. A home range is a geographical area a bear inhabits over the course of a year. The ranges of separate bears overlap and vary in size depending on several factors. The ranges tend to be smaller in regions with abundant food and where the food supply is near denning habitat. Kodiak bears have smaller home ranges than most other brown bear populations in North America because of the abundant food supply on the island. Males tend to have larger home ranges than females, and home ranges may increase in the fall when there is less food available, and bears are attempting to build their fat reserves for the winter. Home ranges of females on Kodiak average 50 sq. mi. (130 km²), while the ranges of males average 97 sq. mi. (250 km²).

Several scientific studies have been conducted on Kodiak to understand home ranges and the movements of bears relative to salmon runs and food sources. Studies near Karluk Lake show bears move extensively between different drainages and often time their arrival at a particular stream to exactly coincide with the arrival of the salmon run for the stream. This would not be so exceptional if the salmon returned at the same time every year, but the runs often vary by several weeks from year to year.

 

Recent research by Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge biologist William Leacock and his team provided detailed information on the daily movements of radio-collared bears in the Karluk drainage. During 2010 and 2011, this team fitted eight female bears with GPS collars that broadcasted information at one-hour intervals. This information allowed the researchers to track not only the seasonal movement but the daily and even hourly movements of these bears and to coordinate their travels in response to food sources and bedding areas. Some surprising results emerged from this study, and what struck me was how much the movement patterns, home ranges, and bedding habits varied from sow to sow. This study, as well as any, points out that bears, like humans, are individuals and one bear may have a very different behavior pattern from another bear.

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As always, I welcome your comments on this or any other post. I love to hear what you think.

Be sure to watch my webinar about how I became a published author and why I write Alaska wilderness mysteries. I think you will enjoy the beautiful photos taken by my husband Mike and my friend Ryan Augustine. Stay until the end, and you will receive a coupon for a free e-book of one of my novels. The link is: http://bit.ly/2pcCOo6  

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Summer Update

This week, I would like to give you a summer update. Last week, I wrote about the difficult spring and summer I have had, but I didn’t want to leave things on a negative note. I began writing my last post a few weeks ago, and since then, I have gotten stronger and am beginning to recover the use of my muscles. Lately, I’ve been going out on the boat nearly every day with our summer guests; although, I will admit I’m not much help.

While I have been challenged by the physical demands of my job this summer, spending my days with our guests and the wildlife of Uyak Bay has done much to repair my psychological health. Mike took the above photo one day when a pod of Orcas fed and frolicked near our lodge. An abundant, sustained pink salmon run this summer has provided food for everything from Orcas to bears to eagles. Our fishermen have also enjoyed catching salmon.

Soon after my return from the hospital (you can read about that drama in my last post), a group of Australian guests involved us all in an interactive murder game, lasting their entire stay. The game was great fun and had us each trusting no one else in camp. It did not surprise me when Mike (my husband) won the game by murdering the most people. As if my summer hadn’t already been bad enough, Mike even murdered me!

The most uplifting news for me this season was to learn that a sow we have watched for the past eight years showed up this summer with three newborn cubs. The sow was badly injured by another bear when she was very young, and her rear end was flayed open. The injury was so bad, we didn’t think she would survive. We were happy and surprised to see her the next summer, and while the scar has faded over the years, it is still obvious. She has always been a favorite bear for us and our guests because she seems to like to perform in front of us, often catching a fish and then turning toward the photographers, fish held high while the cameras whir. The walls in our dining room are covered with photos of bears, and many of the photos are of her. As the years passed, and she appeared by herself summer after summer, we assumed she was a barren sow and wondered if the horrific injury she received when she was little more than a cub had anything to do with her inability to reproduce. We couldn’t have been more surprised when she showed up this summer with three tiny cubs trailing behind her, and I immediately began e-mailing some of our past guests to tell them the exciting news. From all accounts, she is a good mother, and all those years of fishing on her own have made her a proficient provider. She still doesn’t seem afraid of us, but she keeps her distance from humans now because she has more than herself to worry about.

We still have several weeks left of our summer season, and if nature follows its usual trend, fishing will peak in late August, and bear viewing will get better every day right up until our last day of the season in mid-September. Every year, nearly 50% of our guests are returnees, and this year is no exception. We love the mix of returnees and new guests, and I like to think of it as old and new friends.

No matter how bad the first part of my summer was, I knew things would improve once I climbed onto our boat, the Mary Beth, and began enjoying adventures with our guests.

You can read more about our lodge at www.munseysbearcamp.com .

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What Do Kodiak Bears Eat?

 

One of the main reasons Kodiak bears grow so much larger than inland grizzly bears is due to the abundance of food on Kodiak. Not only can bears feast on protein-rich salmon in the summer, but the archipelago is loaded with nutritious vegetation and sugar-packed berries. A brown bear’s jaws have powerful muscles and teeth that have evolved to adapt to an omnivorous diet of both plants and animals. Kodiak bears are opportunistic feeders. They eat roots, berries, grasses, sedges, wildflowers, wild celery, and other plants, as well as rodents, insects, large mammals (including deer and mountain goats), fish, carrion, and yes, unfortunately, garbage and pet food.

 Bears’ stomachs contract during hibernation, and when they first leave their dens, they aren’t hungry. They eat little at first, concentrating on emerging plants and their roots. As the spring progresses, Kodiak bears can be seen feeding in grassy meadows and look much like grazing cattle. Their diet switches to salmon in the summer months, when they chase and catch fish in shallow streams or on the tidal flats near the heads of the deep, narrow bays on Kodiak. Bears also consume dead salmon that have washed up on shore. When the salmonberries, elderberries, crowberries, blueberries and other berries begin to ripen on Kodiak in late July and August, most bears spend at least part of their day in berry thickets, pulling the berries from the bushes with their lips and mouths. Salmon provide bears with fat and protein, and berries are high in natural sugars, all of which are important for building up a fat reserve for hibernation. As fall progresses, bears increase their consumption of salmon and berries as they strive to build up their fat layer before entering the den for hibernation. A diet rich in berries has its downside, though. Bears are one of the few wild animals susceptible to tooth decay. Abscessed teeth are not uncommon, and rotten teeth may affect the bear’s ability to eat and may even lead to starvation.

 One of the most enjoyable aspects of bear viewing is watching a bear chase and catch a salmon. Sows teach their cubs how to fish and will often corral a salmon toward the cub in shallow water and then encourage the cub to chase the fish. A sow with newborn cubs that are still nursing will only allow her cubs to eat a small part of her catch after she has had her fill because she needs the extra protein to produce the milk to nurse her cubs, and the cubs are receiving most of their nutrition from her. As the cubs age, they nurse less, and the sow shares more of her catch with them. Finally, when they are old enough, she encourages them to fish on their own, and by the time the cubs are two years old, they can usually chase and catch a few salmon without the help of their mother.

Fishing is a skill bears learn with much practice over time, so young bears are often clumsy fishermen. A sub-adult bear may gallop back and forth in a stream for thirty minutes without successfully landing a salmon, while an older bear walks slowly downstream and pounces on a passing salmon with little effort. A bear may also develop his own unique fishing technique. One bear may sit on a fallen log hanging low over a stream and attempt to grab fish as they swim past. A second bear may “submarine” by dunking his head under water to watch for fish, and a third may obtain his fish by chasing another bear and stealing that bear’s catch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Kodiak Bear’s Fur and Claws

  FUR

A Kodiak bear’s coat may range from dark brown to nearly blonde.  Bears are typically darker in the fall when they begin growing their winter coat, and older bears are often darker than younger bears, but these are just generalizations.  One cub from a litter may be light, while his brother is dark brown.

 Cubs often have a natal collar, a white band around the neck and shoulder.  Some cubs have no natal collar, and others have a collar that is bright and distinct.  This band gradually fades over time, and it has usually disappeared by the age of three, but occasionally, you will see a four-or-five-year-old bear that still has remnants of a collar.

 A bear’s fur is an excellent insulator.  It is dense and oily, keeping the bear warm and preventing water from penetrating.  The fur consists of two types of hair, the “guard hair” and the “under-fur.”  Bears shed both the guard hair and underfur annually.  In the summer, Kodiak bears often appear shaggy and matted.  The bear in the photo below looks as if she is sporting dreadlocks.  To help remove their fur, bears rub against trees and rocks, often standing on their hind legs, backing up to a tree and rubbing up and down.  It is humorous to watch a bear “scratch his back” in this manner.  While the old coat is shedding, a new coat is growing, and by September on Kodiak, most bears appear darker in color and well-groomed.  The old, loose fur is gone, and only the new fur remains.

 

CLAWS

Brown bears have non-retractable claws up to four-inches long.  The claws of young bears are typically dark brown and then lighten with age.  Although some young bears have light-colored claws, beautiful, pearly-white claws are usually seen on an old sow or boar.  Look at the photos and notice the difference in claw coloration between the sub-adult bear and the old sow.

Brown bears use their claws to defend themselves and fight with other bears, but Kodiak bears primarily use their claws to dig for roots and other food and gripping food.  Even though their claws look large and clumsy to us, they are quite dexterous and capable of manipulating small objects. Kodiak cubs use their claws to climb trees, but adult brown bears are poor climbers due to their body weight and the structure of their claws.  It is not uncommon to see a sow send her small cubs up a tree if she senses danger, and they stay in the tree until she vocalizes the signal that it is safe for them to come down.

What Senses do Kodiak Bears Use Most?

Bears, like all animals, depend on their senses to survive.  They use their senses for many things, but especially to find food and detect possible threats. A bear’s sense of smell is its most important sense.  A brown bear’s sense of smell is three to four times more sensitive than that of an average dog, and it is difficult for humans with our relatively poor sense of smell to comprehend what this means and how much a bear depends on this sense.  A bear uses his nose to find food, locate a mate, and avoid danger.  A bear downwind from you may smell your presence and run from you while you are still several hundred yards away from him.

A bear’s second most important sense is hearing.  Brown bears have relatively small ears, but they can detect noises at a great distance.  A bear can hear the click of a camera shutter over the sound of the wind, crashing waves, or a swiftly running river.

     For a long time, biologists believed bears had poor eyesight, but scientific research has shown a bear’s eyesight is similar to that of a human’s.  Bears are not nearsighted as was once believed, and they can see colors. Brown bears often stand on their hind legs to increase their sight distance and get a better look at an object.  It is not a sign of aggression when a bear stands on its hind legs; the bear is just trying to gain more sensory input.

 

The important thing to remember is a bear does not use each one of these senses independent of the others.  If a bear sees something unfamiliar in the distance, such as a person, a boat, or even another bear, he may stand on his hind legs to get a better look, raise his nose to attempt to smell the interloper, and pick up his ears to try to ascertain unfamiliar sounds.  If he still cannot determine what the object is, he may approach it for a closer look or circle downwind from the object so that he can smell it better.

Next week, I’ll write about a bear’s fur and claws.  Does a bear’s fur change with age?  Why are some Kodiak bears blonde and others a chocolate-colored?  What is the white ring some cubs have around their neck?  How do the claws change with age?

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Summer Friends at Amook Pass

Summer Friends at Amook Pass is a post by my friend, Marcia Messier. I love this humorous story about her animal encounters while she worked for us at Munsey’s Bear Camp. What Marcia doesn’t tell you in this piece is that I named our goat visitor Marcie because the goat’s daring trip each summer from the mountains to the ocean, reminded me of Marcia’s adventurous spirit. Prepare to smile as you read about Marcia’s adventures!

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Summer Friends at Amook Pass

During the summer months at Amook Pass, the animals were my friends. That sounds a bit corny, but they were amusing, startling, and comforting, all that friends should be. I looked forward and anticipated who might stop by for a visit during my busy days.

House Animals

I was privileged to know Gizzy, Fletcher, Elsie, and Olive during my summers at Munsey’s Bear Camp. They were my very best animal friends. I thought it was interesting that Gizzy and Olive had similar personalities as did Fletcher and Elsie; even though, they had never met. Gizzy and Olive were the sweet ladies, soft-spoken, polite, accommodating for a photo, well groomed, and perhaps just a little bit shy of visitors. Fletcher and Elsie, on the other hand, were true wilderness cats. Fletcher was getting along in years when I first met him, but he told me many a hair-raising tale about his hunting skills as a younger gentleman. Elsie was in her prime, and she loved to stalk bears for days on end. Many a time as Robin and I were mourning her early demise, we would hear Mike yell, “Elsie’s back!”, and there she would be, dragging herself through the door, ragged, dirty and ravenously hungry after her latest adventure.

Fletcher and Elsie loved to hunt voles, the tiny mouse-like creatures close to the bottom of the Kodiak food chain. They must be a very tasty snack because twice daily I’d find their tiny blue and green left-over parts deposited on the front door step. I used to tell myself they were loving gifts, but then again, whoever left the pieces always seemed slightly amused when I reached down to pluck the bits off the doorstep while making slight gagging sounds.

Freddie the Weasel became a daily late-afternoon house guest. Maybe the sound of the old generator starting up interrupted his afternoon nap. He’d shoot in the backdoor, zip through the kitchen and take cover under the couch in the living room to watch and learn about life in the big house. At first, I jumped and shrieked thinking he must be some kind of Kodiak rat, but later in the day, Robin calmly explained about weasels.

Gizzy and Fletcher were still with us then but getting along in years. They knew their limitations, so they decided to pretend Freddie was just a figment of my over-active imagination. Not wanting to insult them, I went along with the game and soon we all looked forward to Freddie’s daily antics. I knew when he heard the boat motoring up to the mooring; I would see the tail end of Freddie flip out the front door.

Yard Animals

Early in the summer season, the female Sitka deer would bring their fawns into the yard to nibble the bright green salad-like greens growing around the cabins. Sometimes there would be twins, and I would think happy thoughts as I watched them through the kitchen window while preparing breakfast.

One day I came nose to nose with a deer! I was hurrying to the cabin with a load of fresh laundry, and we met coming around the corner at the same instant. We were both startled and just stared dumbfounded into each other’s eyes for a moment. I’m not sure who moved first, but a hunter later told me I was lucky it hadn’t given me a good kick in the shins before it bolted off! I guess that happens, but ours was a peaceful meeting, and I will forever remember that instant.

I live in Arizona, so the first time I saw a fox on the pathway, I excitedly reported to Mike I had seen a coyote in the yard that day. Laughing, he looked at me like I was nuts and said, “There are no coyotes on Kodiak Island!”. I felt a little foolish but still maintain at a distance, a big healthy Kodiak fox looks very much like a thin Arizona coyote in the summertime!

I’ve seen Bald Eagles before, but in Arizona, they are a special sighting. On Kodiak, they are commonplace, and I was thrilled to see a nesting pair close to camp. On my mid-day break, if the weather was good, I’d sit in a lawn chair facing the bay and watch the eagles fish. It was entertaining; an eagle would fly over the water and scope out a fish, and then in an amazing feet-first dive, catch the fish in its talons. After this, it was usually impossible to get airborne once again, so it had to row itself and the fish, still clutched in its talons, ashore with its wings. There, after expending so much energy, it would devour the fish and do it all over again.

More than once, on a nice day, while taking a siesta in the hammock, enjoying the warm sun on my face, I’d hear and feel the strong wing beats of a very large bird flying close over me, and I’d know I had been checked out by a Bald Eagle!

Some of you may have read my “Encounter” with a bear. I was walking along the path up to the guest cottage one afternoon, my mind far away, when I heard a “horse” snort. The sound brought me back to the present in a flash, and I must say, I have never confused the sound of a bear with that of a horse again!

A secret I’d like to reveal is Mike used to make a bear playground out of old red mooring buoys a distance up behind the generator shed. I heard him and Robin laughing once about how much fun the bears had rolling, tossing and chewing these old red buoys. I never did venture up past the generator shed and burn barrel. Wearing a red jacket, I didn’t want the bears to make a mistake. I did wonder if mother bears warned their cubs, “never go near that playground as there is a dangerous human there who makes frightening loud, smoky blasts come out of the shed and soon after makes fire leap high into the sky out of a barrel!” Thinking back, I was probably quite safe.

Marcie was my favorite yard animal. One warm July day, we spotted a solitary mountain goat strolling along the beach near camp. Mike and Robin reported this was indeed a rare sighting. We couldn’t help ourselves, Robin christened her Marcie, and we began to speculate about her life and why she was here on our beach. She was a rebel. Marcie was tired of billies, she had too many youngsters to raise, and the constant stress of all those steep icy mountain ledges was wearing her down. Maybe she had arthritis in her knees. Maybe she just wanted a vacation at the beach! We happily welcomed her, and for a number of years, she would appear for her annual July vacation at Munsey’s Bear Camp. One year she didn’t arrive. We looked and looked, but no Marcie.   Right away we decided, instead of feeling sad, we would celebrate her life. We had a toast to Marcie, how brave she was to break away from the herd and dare to be different!

Sea Animals

The sea otter is a zen-like sight floating on its back, paws pressed together as if in meditation pose. It’s a sweet maternal picture with mom floating on her back and a tiny baby resting on her belly. And how clever of them to use tools! They often are observed with a rock balanced on their belly, happily cracking open clams for lunch. Brilliant!

At Munsey’s Bear Camp, I often saw sea otters floating in the cove in front of the lodge, and the sea otters kept to themselves. Their cousins the river otters, however, were a different matter. A family of river otters took up residence under the dock. This dock was now their home, and no one else was welcome. The dock became their dining room and their toilet. A mop had to be stationed on the dock so that the horrid stinky mess could be swabbed away. The mop could also be used as a defensive tool.

River Otter

With guests arriving and departing from the dock every five days, caution had to be observed. One day stands out in my mind. It was a beautiful, sunny Kodiak day, and we were all on deck welcoming new guests. As they were embarking from the float plane and luggage was being handed down, I took a step back and slid on an unseen mound of otter poo. I wanted to vaporize as I fell on my backside in an ungraceful plop! Afterward, we laughed about this incident, but I never forgot, and every time I saw a sweet little otter posing for pictures, I saw two little horns poking up through the top of its head.

I grew up near Cape Cod where everyone loved to fish. I didn’t. To me, the whole process from baiting the hook, to dragging the poor thing out of its natural habitat with a hook in its mouth, to butchering it, to stinking up the house with fried fish was cruel and disgusting. Fast forward 40 years and I’m a cook in a fishing camp. I politely listened and smiled at all the fish stories and quietly cooked the fish, wondering what all the commotion was about. One day my perception changed. Robin and Mike asked me if I’d like to go out on the boat with them for the day. We had only one guest, and it was a great day to get out of the house. Yes, I wanted to go! Like a good sport, I purchased my fishing license, and away we went. Mike anchored in a pretty cove, and as I sat down in the deck chair ready to enjoy the sunshine, Robin stuck a baited pole in my hands and showed me where to drop the line. Still not paying much attention, suddenly the pole was nearly yanked out of my hands, and the line was whizzing off the reel. “What’s going on?”, I hollered. Robin and Mike replied, “You’ve caught a fish.” They proceeded to give me instructions. Suddenly, the scenario was hilarious, like an old re-run of “I Love Lucy.” I couldn’t stop laughing which in turn made my arms weak and unable to reel in the line. In a second, Robin strapped a belt-like thing around me to support the fishing pole so that I could reel. Now we are all laughing hard, but with perseverance and aching arms, the fish finally emerged from the deep. I was leaned over the rail gasping in amazement at “my halibut” when all of sudden, Mike, with an expert jerk of his pliers, freed my fish from the hook and off it swam! Hey! At that moment I was totally conflicted. On the one hand, I proudly wanted to bring my halibut home for supper, but on the other, I wished it well and was happy it was able to live another day in Uyak Bay.

 

 

 

 

 

Mammals Endemic to Kodiak Island

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How can any mammal be endemic to an island in the North Pacific? That mammal did not evolve on that island, so it had to arrive on the island at some point. I guess the answer depends on your definition of endemic. Most biologists believe that if a species was present on an island when the island became separated from nearby land masses, and if that species continued to survive on the island, then the species is endemic or native to the island. In other words, the species was not transported to that island by man. Experts list six mammals they consider endemic to Kodiak Island. These are the Kodiak Bear, the red fox, the river otter, the short-tailed weasel, the tundra vole, and the little brown bat. Over the next few weeks, I will discuss each of these mammals. I have already written several posts on Kodiak Bears, so I will mention them briefly here, and then in subsequent posts, I will focus my attention on the other five mammals.

At the end of the Pleistocene epoch, 12,000 years ago, ice sheets covered the North Pacific, connecting Kodiak Island to the mainland. At this time, bears and other mammals could roam freely between the mainland and Kodiak, and we assume that this was when the six mammals we consider native to Kodiak Island arrived on the island. When the ice receded and water levels rose, these mammals were trapped on Kodiak Island, where they adapted, evolved, and thrived. Humans would not arrive for another 4500 years.

After the ice receded, vegetation was scarce, but conditions slowly improved. Vegetation grew and became the jungle-like growth we know on the island today, and salmon runs became established in the many rivers and streams here. More than 3500 bears presently inhabit the Kodiak Island Archipelago, the largest number to have ever lived here. The bears thrive on prolific berry crops and rich salmon runs. Many mammals have been introduced to Kodiak over the years, and while some have negatively impacted the vegetation here, none seem to have affected brown bear abundance and vigor.DSC_0040

Kodiak brown bears exist only on the islands of the Kodiak Archipelago. The archipelago is located in the western Gulf of Alaska, approximately 250 miles (408 km) southwest of Anchorage. The island group is 177 miles (283.2 km) long and 67 miles (107.2 km) wide at its widest point. Kodiak, the most prominent island in the group, has a land mass of 3,588 square miles (8,975 km²) and is the second largest island in the United States.

In 2005, the brown bear density on Kodiak Island was estimated at 0.7 bears/square mile (271.2 bears/1000 km²), making it one of the densest brown bear populations in the world. This density estimate is a bit misleading, however, since bears are not evenly distributed across the archipelago. In the spring, summer, and fall, the bear density is much greater along the coast and salmon streams, while there are fewer bears in alpine regions. During the past decade, the Kodiak bear population has been slowly increasing. Recent genetic research has shown that while Kodiak brown bears are closely related to Alaska Peninsula brown bears and brown bears in Kamchatka, Russia, Kodiak bears have been isolated since ice sheets receded at the end of the Pleistocene epoch 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll write posts about red foxes, river otters, short-tailed weasels, tundra voles, and little brown bats.

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