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Habituation allows bears and people to coexist at Anan Creek

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A black bear peers into the photo blind at Anan Creek. (Katarina Sostaric/KSTK)

The fifth annual Bearfest started Wednesday, bringing researchers to Wrangell to discuss the symposium theme, “Bears and People.”

The Anan Wildlife Observatory near Wrangell is a place where bears and people come into contact every day. Anan Creek’s salmon run attracts black and brown bears looking for food, and the bears attract people who are looking for a unique wildlife viewing experience.

Anan site manager Matt Jurak said the observatory provides a special opportunity for visitors.

“I think it’s pretty amazing. You can watch a bear just be a bear,” Jurak said.

Bears catch fish in the creek, climb trees, meander across the boardwalk, and even settle right down under the viewing deck to snack on salmon. They do all of this just a few yards away from up to 60 people.

Forest Service interpreter Beth Rosenberg said keeping people’s behavior predictable helps the bears stay active around the deck. This includes controlling the number, location and timing of the visitors.

“The bears that come around here or fish the far side, or that we see on the trail, know what to expect from us,” Rosenberg said. “And they behave predictably, as well. That’s generally what we refer to as habituation.”

Jurak said collecting data helps ensure the bears are not adversely affected by visitors. He said Forest Service interpreters record the number of bears, the number of people, the weather, and levels of water and fish.

“We do two hour scans every day,” Jurak said. “So every 10 minutes, we’ll take a scan and we identify the bear, try to identify each individual. And where the bear is at and what it’s doing.”

Interpreters have a few ways of distinguishing individual bears.

Rosenberg said the interpreters give the bears names.

“First of all, we should clarify that these are definitely wild bears,” Rosenberg said.” And we don’t really name them as much as give them identifying names. That sounds like it might be the same, but it’s actually not. It’s kind of easier to remember a name that is associated with a characteristic instead of say, 718A, a number that’s harder to remember.”

Chest patches, scars or nicks can help identify individuals.

“We look for some of those characteristics and usually can end up identifying a fair number of the bears within a season and a handful from season to season, year to year,” Rosenberg said.

Rosenberg said, to the trained eye, a bear’s behavior can also be a distinguishing factor.

“A lot of times people could look at just a bunch of bears fishing and say everything’s random, and there’s nothing to really distinguish them,” Rosenberg said. “But they have very distinct personalities.”

Rosenberg said hierarchical clues and a bear’s level of comfort around people are noticeable behaviors.

Jurak agrees.

“You really do get to know these bears,” Jurak said. “You know their personalities; you know their habits. You can distinguish one from another just by the way they act.”

Jurak recalled what happened when some visitors rushed over to look at a huge bear named Elton.

“He almost got really shy, and he was trying to position himself behind the bush, hide himself behind the bush, but he was so big he wouldn’t fit. Everyone was like, ‘What’s he doing?’ He’s this shy, laidback bear. He’s really cool.”

After bears are identified and their behavior is recorded, that data can be used to inform observatory management.

The Anan Observatory has a limit of 60 people per day, originally intended to be split into three groups of 20. The limit is based on research that found a drop-off in bear activity when more than 20 people were on the deck. That study was done in the early 90s.

The Forest Service is considering ways to change its management plan and allow more people to visit the observatory.

But Jurak said, for the bears, the behavior of the visitors is more important than the number.

“If you have a very loud, people running around and stuff, that’s gonna affect the bears more than if you have 40 people kinda standing around calmly watching the bear, not making much noise,” Jurak said.

Data collected on site also allows the Forest Service to monitor bear-viewing consistency. In 10 minutes on the observation deck, visitors can see an average of 2.5 bears.

Stephanie Dempsey traveled to Anan from Sodona, Arizona.

“I’ve come to Alaska three times trying to see the bears, and every time, it’s been a loss. I’ve gone on many trips, and this is the first time I got to see the bears. And it was worth all the other trips to finally see this,” Dempsey said. “I’m thrilled with what I saw.”

Rosenberg said visitors’ perceptions of bears change after spending time at Anan.

“They’ll come up here with a preconceived notion of about how bears are. A lot of time it’s a fear-based system. Bears are just looking to fight and they’re very aggressive. And it’s so clear that they’re smart and perceptive. They’re very eager to move around us and avoid conflict,” Rosenberg said. “And it’s just nice for people to see wild bears functioning that way and have a different understanding of how amazing bears are.”

Anan’s salmon run is typically over at the end of August. That’s when bears and people will leave the creek until they meet again the next summer.

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