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KODIAK: Study Supports Compatibility Premise of Structured Bear Viewing
Alaska Region, February 3, 2007
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Bear viewing has emerged as an important public use of Kodiak Refuge over the past 25 years. Steve Hillebrand/USFWS
Bear viewing has emerged as an important public use of Kodiak Refuge over the past 25 years. Steve Hillebrand/USFWS - Photo Credit: n/a
The Refuge plans to reinstitute a viewing program at O'Malley River patterned after the one operated at McNeil River by Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Paul Taylor/USFWS
The Refuge plans to reinstitute a viewing program at O'Malley River patterned after the one operated at McNeil River by Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Paul Taylor/USFWS - Photo Credit: n/a

Over the past 25 years, recreational use of Alaska's coastal wildlands has increased dramatically. Although sport angling is perhaps the biggest summer attraction, wildlife observation--including bear viewing --has also shared the limelight, especially at Katmai National Park and Kodiak Island. The bulk of viewing use occurs in and adjacent to important bear habitat where animals congregate to graze on tideland plants or to feed on spawning salmon. The activity is further characterized by the fact that it occurs in close proximity, usually less than 50 yards, to foraging bears. Naturally, the advent of close-range viewing raised questions about compatibility of this use independent of, or in association with, other public uses such as fishing and hiking. 

In response, Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, in cooperation with the Alaska Science Center/U.S. Geological Survey, initiated a long-term study in 1991 and completed field work in 2004. The primary thrust of the study was to compare response of bears to different regimes of public use: 1) none--closed; 2) structured bear viewing; and 3) open--consisting of a mixture of fishing, viewing, hiking, camping, etc. The study, which involved counting bears and people, mapping their distribution, and noting their interactions, operated in the O'Malley River, an easily accessed area of Kodiak Refuge that routinely supports 60-75 bears per square mile during the summer peak of bear use.

Study results revealed that average counts of bear groups were lowest with open use management, intermediate with structured bear viewing, and highest when the area was closed to public access. Variation in bear group counts among management regimes was associated primarily with differences in numbers of single bears, as opposed to bear families. Notably, differences measured in average counts of bear groups between open and the other two management regimes were statistically significant. On the other hand, no significant differences were indicated when we compared bear group counts under structured bear viewing and public use closure. This lack of difference was attributed to an apparent increase in regional bear density, high escapements of sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) in 2003 and 2004, and an atypical pattern of seasonal bear use in 2003.

Overall, these results indicate that bear use of the O'Malley area increased substantially when human activity was prohibited or restricted to structured bear viewing. This finding carries particular relevance for the management of Kodiak Refuge since the refuge's Revised Comprehensive Conservation Plan recommends reopening the O'Malley River area to structured bear viewing.


Contact Info: Kristen Gilbert, 907-786-3391, Kristen_Gilbert@fws.gov



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