Global warming and climate change are real, and Kodiak bears are saying so

Alaska Kodiak bear (Alaska state Fish and Game photo)

Alaska's Kodiak bears, also known as grizzlies, have been passing up their famous salmon hunts due to climate change

John Tetpon

I’m a firm believer in global warming and climate change. There’s too much evidence that firms up that conclusion. Alaska’s permafrost is melting, coastal villages have had to move further inland to avoid being washed away by seasonal storms, and Kodiak bears are hanging out on the streets of that town longer and getting labeled “nuisance bears.”

Alaska wildlife officials in Kodiak are considering killing the bears if they don’t go into hibernation soon. That’s the word from Kodiak City Manager Mike Tvenge. That’s according to a news report from the Kodiak Daily Mirror.

Biologists say Kodiak bears usually get into their dens by the end of October but some haven’t done so yet and are wreaking havoc among townspeople.

“Kodiak Police Department is working closely with Alaska Department of Fish and Game to deter the bears from getting into the (trash) roll carts, but those efforts have had short-lasting effects,” Tvenge recently told city officials. “The bears are now becoming used to the non-lethal bullets and pepper shots.”

Tvenge also told the city council last week that state Department of Fish and Game officials working with Kodiak police will likely kill these bears, the Kodiak Daily Mirror reported.

According to Larry Van Daele, Kodiak Area Wildlife Biologist, Kodiak bears are a unique subspecies of the brown or grizzly bear and live exclusively on the islands in the Kodiak Archipelago and have been isolated from other bears for about 12,000 years.

There are about 3,500 Kodiak bears on the island and are the largest bears in the world. A large male can stand over 10' tall when on his hind legs, and 5' when on all four legs. They weigh up to 1,500 pounds. Females are smaller and lighter than males. Only one person has been killed by a bear on Kodiak in the past 75 years. About once every other year a bear injures a person, Van Daele said in a report.

According to a recent report, climate change can be tough on specialist animals, whose focus on specific foods may backfire as seasons shift. Some migratory birds, for example, now show up too late or too early for their normal springtime feasts.

Alaska's Kodiak bears, also known as grizzlies, have recently given up their famous salmon hunts due to climate change, according to a new study, but not because salmon are scarce. Warmer weather led a different food source to overlap with the annual salmon run, presenting the bears with an unusual choice between two of their favorite foods at the same time.

While they love salmon, bears seem to want the other food even more. When it made an early debut, they left the salmon streams — where they typically kill 25 to 75 percent of the salmon — and moved onto nearby hillsides for elderberries.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looked at why bears abandoned their salmon hunts on Alaska's Kodiak Archipelago in the summer of 2014. That July and August, the islands' freshwater streams filled up as usual with the yearly salmon run. This bonanza is normally raided by bears, but as Ed Yong explains in the Atlantic, that didn't happen in 2014.

Data from tracking collars showed the bears were on nearby hills instead of fishing in streams. Hills with red elderberry seemed most popular, and a survey of local bear droppings revealed lots of elderberry skins and little sign of salmon.

Kodiak bears are already big elderberry fans, but the berries usually ripen in late August and early September — the end of salmon season. The bears are used to eating these foods in order, switching to elderberries after the salmon are gone. But using historical temperature data, the study's authors found that rising temperatures have been helping Kodiak elderberries move up their schedule.

In years with especially warm spring weather, like 2014, red elderberry "fruited several weeks earlier," the researchers write, "and became available during the period when salmon spawned in tributary streams." As co-author William Deacy tells Phil McKenna of InsideClimate News, this forced the bears to make a decision.

"It's essentially like if breakfast and lunch were served at same time, and then there is nothing to eat until dinner," says Deacy, a biologist at OSU. "You have to choose between breakfast and lunch because you can only eat so much at a time."

The bears chose berries, a seemingly bad decision since salmon offers twice the energy density. But research has shown that elderberries have a better nutrient profile for helping brown bears gain mass quickly — a key part of their preparations for winter. Their berries contain 13 to 14 percent protein, close to the 17 percent identified as optimal for brown bears in a 2014 study. Spawning salmon are about 85 percent protein, McKenna notes, and require more energy to break down.

Biologists at Oregon State University, University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station, and Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge conducted the research.

"An earlier berry crop shut down one of the most iconic predator-prey scenes in nature," said Jonny Armstrong, an ecologist at OSU and member of the research team. "As climate change reschedules ecosystems, species that were once separated in time are now getting a chance to interact -- in this case the berries, bears and salmon. This is going to have large impacts that are hard to predict."

Kodiak police say killing a bear in a residential area is not an easy task.

The wildlife department does not usually decide to kill a bear without first conferring with appropriate local, state or federal agencies, said Nate Svoboda, a department wildlife biologist.

“Making the decision to dispatch a bear is not something ADF&G often endorses, as this does little to curb the fundamental problem of bears getting into easily accessible and unprotected trash,” Svoboda said.

“This can be very difficult, time-consuming, resource intense and expensive, and typically does little to solve the core problem,” Svoboda said. “In addition, relocating bears to other regions can disrupt the natural system in the area the bear gets relocated. ”

John Tetpon, Inupiaq, is a longtime Alaska journalist, musician and artist. His email: johnnytetpon@yahoo.com

Comments
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CatWhisperer23
CatWhisperer23

i am sick and tired of animals being killed for their actions that are caused by Man! We are disrupting the climate and destroying the habitat of all wild animals. And yet, the answer is to kill the animals. Humans need to learn to live with the animals.

David Hollenshead
David Hollenshead

Perhaps the people need to discourage the bears from eating out of trash cans ??? Placing the hottest chili pepper available, in a hot dog, in the top of trash in the can will teach them to say out of the bins...

JackBilly71TL
JackBilly71TL

There is no doubt....there is climate change.....likely as far back to the 1970s.....the central issue is how much will the climate change thing COST US citizens? It was no secret that the failed Paris Accords costed the USA $1 BILLION dollars for the sake of other nations and countries to coat tail on the USA. What is the failed United Nations doing to reign in China, India, other countries?......the issue is being Taxed by Democrats for the sake of heavy handed USgovt power.