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Bear education at UAS

Maps show bear-human interactions

Posted: March 14, 2013 - 12:14am

It’s one thing to be told you shouldn’t feed the bears. But it’s another thing to see maps tracking those bears as they live, forage and scavenge in your neighborhood.

That was the theme of a presentation on bear education at the University of Alaska Southeast Wednesday.

Presenters from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game gave the bear education talk as part of the “Wildlife Wednesday” series of science lectures at UAS, which is on its annual spring break this week. The Wildlife Wednesday events are organized by the Southeast Alaska chapter of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance.

“Every time that bear interacts with a person, that bear learns something, too,” said biologist Ryan Scott.

Scott compounded that point by showing map after map showing where black bears that have been caught and outfitted with tracking collars spend their time in the Juneau area. Most repeatedly returned to populated areas, taking advantage of unsecured garbage containers for an easy meal. It was the same story for a brown bear tracked in Yakutat.

“This is incredibly powerful stuff to be able to take and show people,” Scott said. “It’s not simply a map with dots on it. It’s an opportunity for us to have conversations with people about bear behavior, human behavior, bear biology.”

Wildlife educator Tennie Bentz described her job, in large part, as teaching that information to students. She said she hopes they will grow up with sound information about bear behavior and bear safety and will talk to their parents about what they have learned.

“I get the pleasure of going into classrooms … and showing them bear hides and skulls and teaching them about how to behave around bears,” said Bentz of the students.

Bentz said that showing maps documenting the movement of collared bears in residential areas tends to make an impression on children who recognize familiar landmarks and even their own homes in the paths of the omnivorous animals.

One child, Bentz said, asked her, “If you take away the garbage, will the bears starve?”

The answer is “no.”

Outside of urban areas, where they are frequent scavengers, black bears’ diets include berries, insects, fish, eggs and nuts.

Most of the bears in the Juneau area are black bears, although Scott noted that brown bears do exist in the area. Brown bears are more common in several other parts of Southeast Alaska, including Yakutat.

Bentz and Scott offered several tips for dealing with bears in their presentation, among them: secure your garbage, bring in your bird feeders, don’t leave food out and “don’t freak out.”

“Like it or not, we’re in a place that grows bears like crazy,” said Scott. “Bears are a natural part of Alaska and the Juneau landscape, and education helps us to make good decisions for both people and bears.”

• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 586-1821 or at mark.d.miller@juneauempire.com.

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