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Bears sticking around Mendenhall

Posted: Sunday, October 03, 2010

Tourism season may be over, but the bears aren't ready to pack it in just yet.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Naturalist Laurie Craig at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center discussed bear activity for this season and why there could still be more sightings in store for other visitors.

"The story of the bears is a fascinating one. It's about habitat and food and about the opportunity for us to watch them to where we've become a bear-viewing area. It's one of the wonderful summer pastimes in Juneau," said Craig.

The bears' appearances around Mendenhall are dictated largely by their feeding habits, which is what led to the few early sightings and now means there are more and they'll be sticking around for awhile longer.

Craig said there were 18 bears at Mendenhall this season. She said this is three more than last season with the new ones being babies. They were all black bears and mostly females.

Craig said the first bear sighting of the season was in May and there weren't that many until July. This is because the mild weather conditions of winter and spring made for good foraging.

"The bears were very scarce because they had lots of good, natural food," she said. "So we think they were high in the mountains eating natural vegetation as it ripened."

Then the sockeye salmon moved to Steep Creek to spawn in the third week of July, and the bears gradually moved in for the new food. She said after the sockeye run, the bears disappeared back up the mountains for more berries, as it was a good year for berries.

Craig said they stayed out of sight for the most part for about three weeks, but will now be returning to the lower levels because coho salmon came into Steep Creek towards the end of September, so the bears will start leaving the berries behind for the fish.

Craig said this is a pivotal feeding time for bears that will keep them around here. She said, "This is hyperphagia, which means eating as much as they possibly can because they won't be eating for the next five or six months."

Craig said the bears will probably start retreating to their dens in November, depending on weather and food sources.

She said the bear demographics were expected, as females are drawn to the area while males generally stay in the mountains. Females with cubs will sometimes go to lower levels, to get away from males who can sometimes threaten or kill the cubs.

Black bears are the common ones at Mendenhall. Craig said the staff hasn't spotted a brown bear in the area since 2005, although there was a report of one last year. There were none this year.

"We recognize most of the bears around here. They're basically resident to this area," Craig said. "They've become tolerant of people, and that's both good and bad."

She said the good part is the bears don't run away when people stop to look at them. The bad part is they don't run away if someone gets too close.

Mendenhall takes precautions to keep both sightseers and the animals safe.

"We have a ranger on sight when a bear is present to be sure people understand not to have food and they follow other behavior guidelines," said Craig.

"All wild animals have the potential to be dangerous, but they've come to be tolerant of people to a limited degree because we're at their food source," she said.

She said people can avoid putting themselves at risk while bear-watching. One of the most important steps is to not carry food. In fact, it's for this reason the visitor center stopped selling food a few years ago. Craig recommends leaving all food in the car.

Another safety tip is to keep dogs leashed. Craig said there are many reports, including two in the last few days, of unleashed dogs chasing bears. She said this can not only be dangerous for both animals, but it's illegal.

She said to drive slowly in the area as well.

Craig said bears remain a popular tourist attraction and that the number of visitors this year feels positive. She said many people from cruise ships come in the hopes of spotting one, even if they only have an hour or so to try.

"When people see a bear it's one of the most moving experiences they ever have," she said. "I had a man say 'This was worth the cost of my entire trip.'"

• Contact Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or at jonathan.grass@juneauempire.com.



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