Bear expert to open lecture series

Researcher to present latest scientific view on bear behavior

Posted: Sunday, February 05, 2006

An Alaska researcher peered just beyond the charging sow and saw the cubs, yet he held his ground because everything he knew told him it was a bluff.

Nearly 30 years later John Hechtel still vividly recalls the encounter. He remembers the heavy beating of his heart after startling the coastal brown bear on the Alaska Peninsula.

Hechtel, a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, is now considered a bear expert. This encounter was his first major test, he said.

"I did not run when it charged to about 12 feet away," Hechtel said. "It was just telling me to stay away. I knew that. If you understand the psychology of bears you will be much safer."

Hechtel will present a free public lecture, "Safety in Bear Country: The Science and the Nonsense," Monday at Centennial Hall. The lecture is Juneau's first of the annual University of Alaska Southeast's Science for Alaska Lecture Series, which will run at 7 p.m. every Monday in the month of February. The Centennial Hall series is sponsored and coordinated by the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

There is about one bear present for every five residents in Alaska.

Hechtel will present the latest scientific views on bear behavior and bear and human conflicts by discussing some high-profile bear attacks. He studies the psychology of bears, he said, separating the science from the silliness.

"Imagine if you had someone surprise you in a hotel room when you were sleeping," Hechtel said. "If you didn't know whether it was the maid or someone breaking in, you may respond by defending yourself. Don't put a bear in a position where it has to decide if you are a threat."

This work illustrates the type of research being done in Alaska, UAS spokesman Kevin Myers said. This is the annual start of a popular series averaging about 400 people per lecture, he said.

"This research is vital to Alaskans hoping for a deeper understanding of many issues of importance," Myers said.

The topics this year include bird flu, tsunamis and polar auroras.

Hechtel lectures extensively on bear behavior and bear-human conflicts. He has been a consultant for National Geographic and BBC/Discovery Channel for a number of bear films. He and colleagues most recently produced a series of videos with the International Association for Bear Research and Management, including "Staying Safe in Bear Country" and "Living in Bear Country."



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