Everyone likes to talk about bears. Bears spawn in everyone’s yard around Delta Junction. They are on every trail along the Denali Hwy. People spot them everywhere along the Richardson Highway. Except me. I have come to believe that I may be color blind to brown and black. Again, I am a believer in the theory that all animals must leave tracks.
Once upon a time, in the late 1960s, we were hunting along the Denali Highway, a friend of my dad and I. We were hanging out in Ole’s old Chevy somewhere around Milepost 100 – a lady comes running up the road screaming that a bear was chasing her. Of course Ole slammed on the brakes, he didn’t want to hit the girl, he wanted to shoot the bear. The woman gasped as she was picking blueberries and “a bear came up the hill right on top of her”. This was back when we carried rifles on our knees with a raised shell – sometimes there were creatures on the road in addition to other hunters.
We ran up the hill, only to find a medium-sized porcupine sniffing a tilted blueberry bucket. In another case, a girl whom I know well, and who should know better, came to our yard on the Maclaren with news that there was a bear on Crazy Notch Hill, just 3 miles down the road. The family and I grabbed binoculars and headed up to the Notch to see the big grizzly. Alas, another porcupine. It appears that porcupines could represent a significant portion of long-range grizzly bear sightings.
Moose feeding in the willows also turn into bears. The tracks easily give the truth, although most people really want to see a bear rather than just a moose. It is true that the Denali Highway has a good number of bears in some places. The hot spot for bears along the highway is the Upper Susitna River. Bear tracks are common on the sandbars along the Su and on area trails.
Bears like to feed on various vegetation along the vast gravel plain of the Susitna and Nenana rivers. There are also a good number of calving moose in this area. Grizzlies love them too. In the 1990s, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game decided that brown bear predation on moose needed to be reduced in Unit 13 along the Denali Highway.
Fish and Game was commissioned by the Board of Game to halve the bear population.
This never happened, despite liberalized seasons and a rather hazy vision regarding methods and means of enforcement. The bear population has remained stable or increasing. A study in addition to the survey was done to determine bear populations and what might be a maximum sustained harvest goal. Radio collars have been used for decades with good success on individual bears, but extrapolation from the data received has been difficult. Counting bears has been the thorn. Unless the population is a known quantity, data extracted from around 20 animals is suspect.
The newest and most promising technique is genetic information obtained from hair samples. It’s really amazing what you can get from a DNA sample. Researchers can tell gender and individual identity. Hormones in the hair sample can indicate whether the bear is stressed and what the bear has done with a staple in its diet. The age cannot yet be determined, but it is a future possibility.
Fish and Game places hair traps, piles of scent – blood or some other attractor – surrounded by barbed wire. A grizzly arrives and checks for good smells, finds nothing to eat and leaves. Ninety-nine percent of the time there are a few strands of hair left on the wire. Traps can be placed in a grid pattern, providing a great new tool for determining population density.
Meanwhile, the end of April has arrived. Snowmobile-mounted bear hunters travel through the highlands along the Denali Highway. Bears may emerge from their dens a little later this year due to a colder than normal April and heavy snowfall. However, snowmobiling conditions are the best since spring hunts were allowed 40 years ago. Snowmobiles are fast, reliable and easy to ride compared to the machines of yesteryear. A 100 mile hike through the mountains is common these days.
Yes, there will be leads. Tracks can be followed almost anywhere. It is not legal to chase a bear and shoot it from a snowmobile. Most people obey the law because it is in their nature to hunt fairly. The few who are inclined to want to down the bear and shoot it may hesitate because they understand that a snowmobile trail, following a bear trail for 10 or 15 miles, is a reasonably sure indicator of illegal hunting.
Despite liberalized methods/means and extended hunting seasons, bear populations virtually everywhere in the state are stable. There were temporary withdrawals in certain localities, but this did not last. Alaska is not populated enough to hunt bears. If we move away from the road, it is still the world of bears. The facts are that humans kill less than 2,000 bears a year statewide. That’s not many bears in a 586,000 square mile area. Non-residents take the lion’s share.
The snow will soon melt, perhaps, and soon we’ll be back in bear-watching summer mode. Most people who think they see a bear on the side of the road don’t immediately run to check the tracks and make sure of their identity. Well Named. And I, in my color-blind state, will continue to be skeptical of almost all “sightings”. However, there is a part of me that rejoices that people still have an unreasonable fear, satisfaction, and respect for one of the greatest symbols of true wilderness in our great state.