2017 March Public Lecture—Brown Bears, Sea Otters, and Seals, Oh My!
Brown Bears, Sea Otters, and Seals, Oh My!
Unexpected interactions on the Katmai Coast
by Grant Hilderbrand, Chief of the Marine Ecosystems Office, USGS Alaska Science Center
- Highlights of ongoing research on brown bears on the coast of the Katmai National Park
- Observations from video collars deployed on brown bears
- Implications for population health and species adaptability
Image Dimensions: 480 x 360
Location Taken: Menlo Park, CA, US
[ Silence ]
Okay. We’ll go ahead
and get started now.
Okay, welcome, everybody, to the
USGS evening public lecture.
Thank you all for coming.
My name is William Seelig.
I’m with Science Information Services.
And before we get started, just a
reminder about next month’s lecture.
It’s on potential corrosivity of
untreated groundwater in the U.S.
This is based on a recent publication.
So that is on April 27th.
And there are some fliers on the
back table there. Feel free to pick up.
And so for tonight’s lecture, the title is,
Brown Bears, Sea Otters, and Seals,
Oh My!, presented by Grant Hilderbrand
of the – our Alaska Science Center.
And just a little bit of
background on Grant.
Here we go.
Grant Hilderbrand is – he’s currently
the chief of the Marine Ecosystems
Center at the Alaska Science
Center of the USGS.
They focus on polar bear, walrus,
sea otter, marine birds,
and ecosystem research.
He’s also the Department of Interior
lead for several brown bear
research projects in Alaska.
He spent five years as the Alaska
regional wildlife biologist for the
National Park Service and 12 years with
the Alaska Department of Fish and
Game as a biologist, focusing primarily
on brown bears and wolves.
Grant received his Ph.D. in 1998
from Washington State University.
That was following a three-year
research program on brown bears
on the Kenai Peninsula.
Grant is the chair of the 2016
International Conference on
Bear Research and Management.
He’s also a fellow of the National
Conservation Leadership Institute and
is also a past president of the Alaska
chapter of the Wildlife Society.
So, again, we’re pleased to bring you
this program about brown bear research.
I would please ask that everyone hold
their questions until after the lecture,
and then we’ll take
some questions afterward.
So without further ado,
please welcome Grant Hilderbrand.
[ Applause ]
- So I left Anchorange yesterday morning,
and we just had 11 inches of snow.
- Turn on your mic.
- I thought it was on.
- Is it coming out?
- I will [inaudible], believe me.
I can do [inaudible] in a hurry.
Yeah, I left Anchorage yesterday
morning, and we just got 11 inches of
snow, and they called school off,
so the kids were really, really happy.
But I just want to say, on a
day like this, I appreciate you.
I don’t know why you came to see me.
- It’s cold out there.
- Everything’s relative, isn’t it?
The other thing is,
I – the longer your bio gets,
you don’t feel more experienced.
You just feel older. [laughter]
Okay. So we’ve
got four different …
[microphone now working]
I feel very Tom Jones. [laughter]
Let’s not go any further with
that analogy. Okay. [laughter]
So we have four different brown bear
research projects that we’re working on
in Alaska right now, three of
which we just wrapped up.
And then one on the Katmai coast.
And so this is one – we have
one more year to go, and so I just
sort of wanted to tell you the story
that’s unfolding for us right now
relative to that particular project.
So the way that we ended up doing a
project on the Katmai coast was,
several years ago, the Park Service
decided they wanted to understand
more about the relationship between
brown bears and clams in this area.
There had been some work that
had been done in the late 1990s and
early part of the 2000s where they –
some biologists had spent some time
in one particular bay observing
how bears spent their time.
And they saw they were spending
a lot of time feeding on clams.
So we knew they used them.
We weren’t really sure how
important they were.
But the funding for this
particular project came from some
old oil spill settlement dollars.
And the reason that they were interested,
both in – both in brown bears,
but also in clams, which is some of the
history of the area – so really quick,
just to kind of show you
the lay of the land –
and I think I’ve got a pointer.
Yeah. There’s my pointer, so …
- I can’t make it dark.
I can yell, but I can’t make it dark.
Anyway, so …
- Oh, yay.
- That’s much better.
So for some of you that know
kind of the layout of Alaska,
so Anchorage kind of sits right in
the south-central part of the state.
Our study area is the coastal
part of Katmai National Park.
One thing I just have to point out.
If you guys notice that little map of the
United States over on the left side,
and then Alaska superimposed over that.
We’re so wildly insecure, we just have
to show how big we are at every talk.
[laughter] So that’s just my one –
the point is, the study areas are big.
That’s all. That’s the take-home
message with that one.
Okay, so why were they interested
in the effects of – for the relationship
between brown bears and
clams on the Katmai coast?
Well, there’s a long history in Alaska,
and a long history of concern
relative to oil spills.
Because we had a really big one
back in 1989. We had the
Exxon Valdez oil spill.
- I can do that.
Can the lights be
turned down again? Off?
- Lights off?
- I can get – I can get there
really quick if I need to, but …
All right. I’m on it.
- [multiple inaudible
comments from audience]
- All right.
[ Applause ]
- You know this is being televised.
- Do you have a pillow? [laughter]
- I’ll be serving drinks in a little bit.
I’ll take your, like, mid-talk orders.
[laughter] Okay. So we have a
history of oil spills in Alaska,
and it’s something that
we’re concerned about.
There’s a whole generation of biologists
just a little bit older than me that
basically got hired to work on
the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
And so, when we think about this
particular spill, the ship was coming
out of – actually, out of Valdez, and so
up there, you can see the spill site.
And just up to the right of
that is where Valdez was.
And then Prince William Sound
is that bay right there in that box
that gets expanded.
But this kind of dark blue-ish gray
notation on the map is – that’s the
distribution of oil from that spill.
So it continued a lot further than
just Prince William Sound.
And you can see
right down here,
Katmai National Park on that coast
is one of the areas where the oil hit.
So relative to oil, the reason
that they wanted to use these funds
to identify or investigate
this relationship is, if we knew,
one, how important
are clams to bears.
And then, two …
- Okay. Better? Okay. And so relative
to the relationship between clams and
bears is, one, we wanted to know
how important were clams to bears.
How much did
they rely on them?
The other thing, if we knew something
about the spatial distribution and
abundance of clams – if we were to get
a big spill, we could not be everywhere.
Then maybe we could prioritize
where we actually focused our efforts.
Another reason we’re really interested
in this relationship between clams and
bears is, we have some concerns
relative to changes in the chemistry
of our oceans and the effect
that it can have on some of
the intermediate life stages of
some of these bivalves. Okay.
And then the final reason that the park
was really interested is because
bear viewing is a rapidly growing and
important industry on the Katmai coast.
And so we have a lot of commercial bear
viewing that takes place in this area.
Yeah, just a really quick comment.
That bear in the upper right,
see that face? That bear is not happy.
I’ve been around bears a little bit,
and that is not a happy bear.
- Oh. I just pulled it off the web.
I got no idea, so …
That’s the end of that.
In a …
- Yeah. In a previous career,
I did get calls, and I investigated
most of the
maulings in Alaska.
I don’t miss doing that at all.
That didn’t end that way.
So to approach this question,
we put together, you know,
kind of a variety of techniques – or,
sources of information to try and
kind of hone in on, again, this
relationship between bears and clams.
So we started
the study in 2015.
And we’re putting out global
positioning system collars
on all the bears that we’re handling.
And what this lets us do is
figure out how they –
how are they using the landscape?
How big is
their home range?
How big is the neighborhood
they live in, if you will?
And within that landscape,
what are they selecting for?
What areas are they
spending a lot of time?
are they avoiding?
We’re also handling the bears,
and we’re weighing them,
getting an idea of
how heavy they are,
and then assessing, how does that
weight change through the year?
But not just how does their
weight change, but how does
their body composition change?
In other words, are they gaining weight?
And if they’re gaining weight,
are they putting on muscle?
Are they gaining fat?
Are they losing fat?
that all work? Okay.
We’re also doing some dietary analysis.
It’s called stable isotopes.
So the really short version of this is,
if you start with, you are what you eat,
okay, there’s certain natural
tracers we can use to assess
what animals have been eating.
We use carbon and nitrogen, mostly.
And so what’s unique with carbon
is that it tends to be greatly enriched
in the marine system.
So if they’re eating more marine foods,
we see more enriched
carbon in their tissues, okay?
And then, relative to nitrogen,
nitrogen tends to get enriched
at each step in
the trophic level.
Really interesting aside.
I gave this talk at noon,
and somebody stopped me afterwards,
and there were some folks that were
doing stable isotope here locally.
And they – basically, once a year,
folks would come in, and they would
take a little piece of their fingernail
and run it for stable isotopes
and see what they were doing.
But the really cool part was they
had a woman that came in with –
and she was – she was nursing her child.
And so they actually took her clip
and then a clip of her –
of her baby’s fingernail.
And actually, the baby was one trophic
level above the mom. So anyway.
that’s what we do.
We also collect, usually,
blood samples – in some cases, hair.
Because we want to get an idea of,
what’s the level of disease exposure?
What are they being –
what’s out in the environment?
Get an idea of what’s going on
from the standpoint of toxins
and then also just have some archives
for genetics for future work.
And then finally, we’re using a
combination of direct observation.
So we’re kind of repeating
the study that was done
back in the late ’90s
that I mentioned.
But we’re also – as technology
advances, we’re able to use
some other tools, and so
we’re using video collars also.
- Video collars [inaudible].
- Pretty much, yeah, yeah. Okay.
So I’m really speaking about the bear
part of the study, but there’s a whole
other partner part of the study that a
group of scientists are working on.
And they’re looking at
the clams and the mussels.
So they’re spending a good part of
their summer going up and down
the coast and, in essence, trying to
map where these – where these
bivalves occur – where the beds are.
Is that better? There, okay? All right.
And so they want to know something
about their distribution and
also their – also their abundance.
And so they’re tackling that part of it.
They’re also taking some of these back
to the lab to see how vulnerable they are
to different type of changes in things like
water chemistry, salinity, temperature.
Okay, so what I want to do now is,
I mentioned all those techniques that
we use, but just – I always think what’s
kind of interesting is, folks will say,
well, how do you actually
go out and do what you do?
So we start with just aerial captures.
And how we go out and catch the bears.
There’s a little step here that I didn’t
see. I almost totally did a face plant.
That would have been awesome.
[engine sounds from video]
So we’re doing – in this video – this
is in the fall. This is fall of last year.
And we have a bear that’s
already wearing a collar,
and so we’re going to take
the collar off of her [inaudible].
And so that collar has a beacon on it,
so we’re just trying to find her.
We knew she’s close, and so we’re
going to come in to take a look at her.
And the first bear we see is not the bear
that’s collared, so we’ll bypass that one.
And then we’re eventually
going to find her.
Yeah. So this is not the one we want.
But one thing that’s kind of cool,
if you look at just all these bear trails,
you can see how – just what –
there’s just lots of bears in this area.
All those places where the grass
is laid down are places
bears have been walking.
So our pilot’s name is
Troy Cambier, and he and I –
the first time we flew together,
I was 23 and he was 25.
So we’ve been doing
this half our lives now.
[engine sounds from video]
Okay, this is – this is the
one that we want, so …
[engine sounds from video]
Okay, so it gets a little shot,
and then about four minutes later,
she’s going to be sleeping happily.
You know what happens when I miss?
I have to leave the video.
People usually ask about the
drug that we use with bears.
It’s a drug called Telazol. It’s designed
for use in veterinary clinics with dogs.
So we use it for wolves.
We use it for bears also.
It’s a really nice drug.
It’s a combination of two drugs –
tiletamine and zolazepam.
One is a dissociative anesthetic,
which means, basically they don’t really
remember any of the event, per se.
And then it also has some
pain-killing properties to it also.
They go down really slow.
Meaning, like, it’s very controlled.
They wake up really slow.
It’s really predictable.
So the generation before me used a drug
called Sernylan, which was angel dust.
They have all kinds of great stories.
I never had to use that.
This is actually a really nice one
for them and for us also.
Okay, so I mentioned we were
putting out these GPS collars.
So the – kind of a standard GPS collar
is the one you see in the upper right.
Okay, so it talks to satellites for us.
What’s really nice about this
is it gives us locations every 30 minutes.
Okay, so I’m – I’ve been doing it
long enough that I started
before we had those collars.
And so the old collars we used to
use were the radio collars.
And so that was an –
it was an awesome tool,
but the limitation was we had to
go out and fly and find them.
So we knew where the bears were,
in essence, like, every other
Tuesday when the weather was
good at about noon. Okay?
So if you think about where you are
on Tuesdays at noon, you know,
maybe that is the most important place
on Earth to you, and maybe it’s not.
It’s a biased sample.
So this one – this way we get
an unbiased sample of where
they’re spending time. Okay.
And then the next thing that we’re
using now is – I guess the next
progression are these video collars.
And so you can see one sitting there
in the lower right, but then also,
on the bear, you can kind of see the lens.
So in a little bit, I’ll show you
some footage from the collars
And in the top of the screen, you’re
always going to see the bear’s lower jaw.
So that’s the orientation
of what you’re seeing.
Okay. So once we have the bear
anesthetized, and we’re working with it,
we always get a good accurate
body weight on them.
The way we do it, we just put
the bear on a canvas tarp,
and we cinch it together.
We’ve got an electronic load cell.
So we get a really accurate weight,
and then it’s attached, and we
come along and crank it up.
And so my criteria, given my
lack of height, is I want good pilots,
and I want tall pilots. [laughter]
Because they can – they can
get at the top. [laughter]
Another thing that we do is,
I mentioned, we don’t want to –
just want to know how big
they are, how much they weigh.
We want to know what that
weight is composed of.
So this is something called
bioelectrical impedance analysis.
It’s the exact same thing you have,
like, in your scale at the gym or at
your house that measures your body fat.
The way it works, or why it works,
is that fat tissue has
very little vascularization.
Okay, so it’s basically a resistor.
Okay, your muscle
tissue is, like, 73% water.
So you’re a really effective conductor.
So knowing something about the
morphology – or the morphometrics
of the bear and getting that
measurement, we get a
really accurate estimate of
its percent body fat. Okay.
We also want to get an idea of,
you know, what the –
sort of the population structure
is in terms of how old they are.
We’re always really curious about
the age structure of our population.
We can assess that through
estimating, looking at tooth wear.
And, in some cases, we’ll pull
a small tooth, and we get
a really accurate age off of that.
We do that with a subset of animals.
We’re also just trying to get an idea,
do we have any particular notable scars
or injuries, anything unusual,
any external parasites, that kind of thing.
So we just give them a really good
once-over and see how they’re doing.
And then we collect a lot of samples –
a lot of blood samples and hair samples.
Occasionally a little bit of a claw.
That kind of thing.
And, again, this is for genetics,
for disease screens,
and for the
stable isotopes work.
What’s really cool with those
stable isotopes is, because different
tissues turn over at different rates –
so I talk with my hands, but I have a
microphone, so I can’t. [laughter]
I feel very restricted right now.
But what’s really nice with
that technique is because
tissues turn over at different rates,
at one capture, we can get samples
that reflect several different
windows of time.
Okay, so, like, serum in your blood
turns over, like, in 10, 12 days.
Red blood cells turn over
in about three months.
Hair continues to grow during
the whole active period.
So we take a different –
a number of samples,
and that gives us windows
to different dietary periods.
We’re also doing direct observations.
So this is Joy Erlenbach.
She’s a Ph.D. student
that works with me.
She’s based out of Washington state,
but she spends all summer on the Katmai
coast observing bears and getting an
idea of, how do they spend their time.
And I just – for future reference,
I want you just to note that island
offshore right there.
And then we also – we go out and
check on them multiple times
during the year to
see how they’re doing.
We actually handle – the way the
study is designed is we catch the bears
in the spring after they
come out of the den.
We go check on them and
handle them again in July,
just before the
And then we handle them
in the fall before they den.
We pull the collar then.
So we have 12 bears in the
study each year, but it’s a
different 12 bears each year.
But one of the reasons we want to
keep following them is,
we want to get an idea of, you know,
who’s living and who’s dying.
If they have cubs,
are the cubs surviving?
If they’ve got multiple cubs,
do we have, you know,
a situation where some
cubs survive, some don’t?
And ultimately, if you do a
study long enough, we can –
we can construct
It’s the same thing life insurance
companies do for us.
We just do it for a different reason.
We just want to know if the
population is going up, going down,
or if it’s stable. Okay.
- Can I [inaudible]?
- Why don’t you follow the same
bears over time [inaudible]?
- So, in some – in some studies,
if we were really interested in
demographics, we would.
And so the places that we are
probably more interested in
those demographics – and when
I say “demographics,” that’s those
population trajectories, if you will.
If it was a place where hunting
was allowed, we’d be much more
concerned about, is the
population going up or down.
Because this is a park,
it’s mostly a natural system.
We’re not as concerned about that.
So that’s part one.
It’s just the
nature of the question.
The other reason that we’re structuring
this study this way is, when we get
all done, if we have a bunch of
what we call independent bear years –
so every bear each year is
independent from the other one,
it’s way easier on the
stat side – statistics side.
So what happens, if we start with
the same 12 bears and carry them
all the way through, if any of them die,
or they shed their collars, it becomes
a real – it gets really, really
messy on the statistical side.
The other part is, to be blunt,
I’d rather know what 36 bears
are doing than
12 bears are doing.
Because it gives me
a bigger sample size.
But, depending on the nature
of the question you’re asking,
you can definitely
design it different ways.
And I’ve done studies
where we keep collars
on the same bears
for five, six, seven years.
We may only handle them one time.
But we want to go out and track them
and see who’s surviving and who’s
producing cubs – that kind of thing.
Does that kind of answer
the question? So, okay.
Okay, so now we’ll pop into
some of the video collar footage.
This first one is usually
a little bit loud, so I apologize.
I’m also going to let them play, and then
we’ll talk about them afterwards.
[loud static sounds]
[static and water sounds]
I know there’s some
Alaska fishermen in the audience,
so I expect someone
to know what this is.
- You’re really close.
You’re really close.
- Yeah, it’s a flounder – starry flounder.
Okay, so I kind of want to make one
particular point with this video,
then we’ll look at some other ones.
So when you – when you’ve been doing
something for a certain length of time,
every now and then,
you’re called an expert.
And when you’re an expert,
all that really means is you know
how much you don’t know, right?
What’s really fun being a scientist
is when you get surprised.
That’s, like, the best thing ever.
And we kind of knew how
things worked on the Katmai coast
going into this.
It’s a salmon-driven system, okay?
Basically, places where bears
have access to salmon,
they come out of the den –
hey, you know, they kind of chill.
They eat some vegetation.
They go dig some clams.
They do things like that.
They just sort of get by.
Until the salmon show up,
like, in late July.
And then they really make hay.
Then they really get fat.
gets better, right?
Well, in this case, it’s hard to see,
but the date on this is June.
So the fish don’t show up
for another month.
This particular bear, it would take
her about 10 minutes to catch a fish,
10 minutes to eat a fish,
and then she would do it again.
And she would do that – she would
catch about 10 fish in a row, and then
she would go sleep for eight hours.
And then she would go do it again.
Okay, so our initial assumption
just didn’t include flounders
being part of the picture.
So first time we saw this, it’s,
like, the best reality show ever.
Because you don’t know what
you’re going to see, you know?
The first time we saw this, it was, like,
oh, man, this is really, really cool.
- Not everybody gets super-stoked
about video flounder.
I get really stoked about video flounder.
Okay, I’ll try and keep this up here.
I’ll try and do better.
[background sounds from video]
So this is – this is a
But one thing we thought
was really important going into it
these mussel beds.
Well, it was really important for
this bear because she would use
the mussel beds as a table
while she ate her flounder.
So that’s a room with a view, right?
- No, so what they’re doing is,
they’re kind of catching them mid-tide.
And from what we’ve seen from these,
then also, after this, we kind of
re-tooled where we did our observations.
And so they’re in water
that’s maybe – like, for them,
chest-deep as they’re
walking on all fours.
And we think they’re just
kind of feeling for them
and then just pinning
them and grabbing them.
[ Silence ]
[background sounds from video]
Spend a lot of time
They do what we call beach salad,
where they’re just, like, walking,
and they just, like, grab whatever
they walk by and eat it.
There’s not a lot they won’t –
they won’t put their mouth on and eat.
[background sounds from video]
- Yeah, absolutely, yeah.
And there’s – so the question was,
do they eat grass.
They’ll eat vegetation, for sure.
They especially like berries and
things late in the – late in the fall,
but in the spring, when the vegetation
is still really green, it’s got a
pretty good protein content.
And they can consume it.
And it’s not as fibrous.
So their gastrointestinal
tract is just like ours.
You know, so they can’t –
they’re not – they’re not a ruminant.
They can’t really break things down the
way other critters can, but they can
make good use of vegetation in the –
in the spring when it’s really green.
I think – don’t know if you noticed,
but actually following another
set of bear tracks
Okay, I’ve got one more of these.
Because I – otherwise,
I’d go on all night,
but this one’s kind of a quiz.
I want you guys to figure out
what’s going on with this bear.
[background sounds from video]
The hint is they have something
in common, probably with all of us,
but especially with me.
- [inaudible comments from audience]
- You’re getting warm,
but you’re not quite there.
[background sounds from video]
There. You get one more hint.
Okay. Here comes a clue.
[loud noises from video]
- Mosquitoes. They hate mosquitoes
as much as I do.
That’s what it is.
So all those little things,
it wasn’t like an army of helicopters.
One of the other good reasons
for us to be out there is we also
stumble across really interesting
observations through time.
So this is sort of like a Where’s Waldo.
It’s hard to see what’s going on.
But what that is, that’s
a big, big, baleen whale.
Those are two huge males
that are feeding on him.
You guys see the two
bears in the picture?
- [multiple audience comments]
Oh. Oh, wow.
- I thought that was a fish.
[inaudible audience comments]
- Anybody not see them?
I can grab a laser pointer really
quick for folks that are here.
So, yeah, all right.
So two things.
One is, if you’re a bear, you can’t really
count on this happening, but when it
does, boy, it sure changes things for you.
They – not necessarily these two bears,
but we – this picture was taken
end of May. When we went back
1st of July, this thing was gone.
There were a couple of ribs left.
The rest was gone.
The other part was, we could have
caught these bears, but Troy was, like,
there’s no way on Earth you’re getting
back in my helicopter after you touch a
bear that’s been touching that, so …
It would be a long swim home, so we
did not handle those guys. Okay.
- Absolutely, yeah. Yeah, absolutely.
Okay. So I’m going to
totally shift gears on you now.
I’m going to talk about
sea otter for a while.
And at some point, it will become
apparent why I’m talking about sea otter.
My disclaimer is, I’m not
a sea otter biologist.
A good friend of mine, a colleague
of mine named Dan Monson,
is a sea otter biologist, so he
put these slides together for me.
And he’s got some work
going on on the Katmai coast.
And so I want to talk a little bit about
things from the sea otter perspective.
So a few things about
sea otters that are important.
They’re really critical to the habitats
they occupy because the rate at which
they consume food –
they’re these little eating machines.
They eat about a third of
their body weight every day.
Okay, so they’re
The other thing is, they tend to
eat things that people also like to
catch and either eat or catch and sell.
So not everybody loves sea otters.
They also, you know, historically,
especially had really valuable fur.
Okay, so kind of a complicated
story with sea otter.
So their historic distribution –
so way back in the day, they spanned
all the way from the Baja Peninsula
of Mexico, up along the West Coast,
California, up through Canada to Alaska,
over to the Kamchatka Peninsula
of Russia, and then on down
to Hokkaido Island in Japan.
Through time, largely due to
over-harvest, their distribution
was reduced greatly.
And so you still have sea otter off the –
off the coast of California.
You guys all know that.
They’re still up off the west
coast of Vancouver Island.
And then we still have them throughout
the Alaskan coast on over to Russia and
such, but the distribution is smaller,
and the numbers were decreased also.
So the pink area is the current
distribution, and those purple arrows
are different places where
people have studied sea otters.
Okay. So with sea otters,
and really kind of any population,
but especially one that’s so tied to its
food resource, when you’re trying to
understand how many otters should be
on – I was going to say the landscape,
but I guess landscape is more for
otters than the seascape, if you will.
You want to know where
they are relative to K.
K is carrying capacity.
It’s just a shorthand that we use.
So carrying capacity is how many of
any animal can the landscape support.
Okay. I think California is
exceeding its carrying capacity,
as someone coming from
Alaska. I’m just saying.
That was a joke.
Come on. Work with me.
[laughter] Okay. So to kind of
illustrate carrying capacity,
got this graph
in the upper right.
And so, on the X axis on the bottom,
imagine, as you move from left to right,
we’re just – we’re just
going through time.
Okay. Time is changing.
On the – on the axis that goes top
to bottom – on the Y axis, that’s just
the number of sea otters. Okay?
So if we start with a situation where
we have a low number of sea otters,
we would expect that there’s a lot of
food for them to feed on. Okay?
Through time, they’re going to feed
on that food, and they’re going to
survive well, and they’re going
to produce lots of baby otters.
And so that otter population is
going to increase through time.
And then, at some point, because of the
way they regulate the ecosystem of
which they are part of, they’re going to
deplete their food resource to an extent.
And so that rate of growth is going to –
is going to stop, and they’re going to
level off at some carrying capacity
where they’re in balance with
the food that’s available.
Make sense? Okay.
But again, what’s unique about them
is there’s sort of this internal feedback
between otters and their food.
Because they rely on their food,
but they also
impact their food. Okay.
And so, in time, you end up with
sort of this equilibrium unless you
get an outside influence. And so it
could be a change in the environment.
In the case of otters in this
part of the world, it was actually –
it was harvest that
kind of tipped them over.
So a few data graphs I want to
walk through with you.
And so I’ll try and explain
each one of these as we go.
Just for clarification, the way these
are set up, if I say “X axis,”
I’m talking about the bottom one
that goes left to right.
If I say “Y axis,” I’m talking
about the one that goes up and down
on the left side of
the graph. Okay?
So this is a graph showing
information from three different
sea otter populations – one in
western Prince William Sound –
that’s where the Valdez spill was at,
one in Kenai Fjords National Park –
which is just off the Kenai, and then
also in Katmai National Park.
And so this shows otter
density through time.
Okay, the unit we’re measuring is
number of otters per square kilometer.
So it really doesn’t matter.
The point is, for two of those
populations – western Prince
William Sound and Kenai Fjords –
you see that the population
density is pretty stable.
The population is not going up
or not going down much.
It fluctuates a little bit, but we typically
see about one otter per square kilometer.
But then we look at Katmai.
What we saw is, back in the late ’80s,
we saw very, very few otter.
But then, when they started looking at
otters anything starting in about 2006,
what they saw was a really
high-density otter population.
Basically five times the number
of otters we see in other places.
And a lot more otters than
used to be there. Okay?
And so why we hypothesized this
occurred is, on that Katmai coast,
after they were harvested – and you
didn’t have otters there for a long time,
that food base grew and grew and grew,
and then, as those otters stopped being
harvested and they started
recolonizing again, what you saw
is they’re doing really well. Remember
that curve that I showed you?
They’re at that part where they’re
cruising upwards. Okay?
Another graph I want to walk you
through is – so, with one exception,
which I’ll cover at the end,
all this information is from
Prince William Sound. Okay? And so
we have a group of years on the bottom.
So I just want to start with
that group that says, ’76 to ’89.
So that’s in the
years 1976 to 1989.
Every spring, the otter folks go out,
and they walk the beaches.
And they look for any
dead otter they can find.
And once they find that otter, they pull a
tooth, they send it to a lab in Montana,
and that says, this otter is
exactly this many years old.
So they have an idea of sort of
what the distribution looks like
in terms of the age of otters
that are dying. All right?
And so the black bar are otters that are
zero to 1 years old. So that’s the pups.
The darker gray bar are the
older otters – 8 years and older.
And that center bar,
the light gray bar, is – those are otters
between the age of 2 and 8 years of age.
So that’s kind of prime age of life.
So what we see in 1976 to 1989,
it’s kind of exactly what you would
expect, right? You get – you have high
mortality in the really young animals.
You get high mortality
in the older-age animals.
But those animals that are, you know,
kind of prime age, you tend to
not see a lot of – a lot of mortality
with those individuals.
So that’s that first group.
Then, in 1989, we had that spill.
And if you look at the distribution
of mortality, just the take-home message
is that oil is an equal-opportunity killer.
It doesn’t care if you’re young,
if you’re old, if you’re
prime age of life, whatever.
So we saw a lot of
mortality tied to the spill.
What was really interesting, though, is,
if you follow through time,
the next set of data is 1990 to 1993,
1994 to ’08, and then 2010 to 2015.
It took almost 20 years for that graph to
look like it did before the spill. Okay?
So we see some real
lingering effects there.
So that was all
Prince William Sound.
- What about the end one there?
- Yeah, [inaudible] …
- Look at that.
You guys should give the talk.
Look at that. [laughter]
Just, like, you were faster
than my finger. [laughter]
So the last one is information from the
Katmai coast from 2006 to 2015.
And that distribution doesn’t look
like it should. Something’s going on.
Okay, so we’ll leave the
question mark for right now.
We’ll come back to – actually,
no, that’s the end of the talk.
Go home. Sorry.
Okay, so now we’re
going to hop back to bears.
This was not this last fall, the fall before.
So remember a few slides ago
when we had that nice shot of Joy
with her little telescope sitting there?
And I said, remember that
island off in the distance.
Okay. We’re on that island now.
Because one of our bears decided
she was going to spend the
summer living on these islands.
- How do they [inaudible]?
- They swim. Yeah.
[motor sounds from video]
They’re better swimmers
than you would think, yeah.
[motor sounds from video]
So as you kind of watch this video,
what I want you to pay attention to –
one is the size of this island. And the
clue is, it’s not – it’s not very big.
And then just look at kind of the
vegetation and the structure.
[motor sounds from video]
And so we had those GPS collars out,
so we knew she was living out there.
And so, as we’re flying in, our question
is just, what is she doing out here?
And this is a female that has
two big 2-year-olds with her.
You’re going to see
them in a second also.
[motor sounds from video]
You guys want to know what
we’re talking about right there?
I was telling him to switch to Pearl Jam
because I always dart to Pearl Jam.
[motor sounds from video]
Those are 2-year-old cubs.
[motor sounds from video]
Did anybody notice that a dart
didn’t leave the gun that time?
I had a misfire.
So, anyway, it happens.
So we were definitely pondering,
why is she spending all summer
on these islands?
It did seem like an odd place.
And once we got out there and
actually physically saw it,
then we were
Before, we were, like, well,
maybe there’s lots of birds.
Maybe there’s – you know, she’s
after chicks. She’s feeding on eggs.
There’s this or that.
There just – there’s nothing
out there except for just
grass and – grass and rock.
We didn’t really start walking around
surveying, but we just stepped out of the
helicopter, and we started seeing a
lot of this, which is unusual bear poop.
So you can’t be a bear biologist and
not show a picture of bear poop.
It’s required. [laughter]
You sign an agreement.
saw a bunch of these.
And a bunch of these.
And they were cached.
Meaning the – they were animals that
had been killed, but then the bears had
buried to kind of feed on through time.
It was really clear these weren’t
carcasses that just washed up.
These were things that were
being actively killed.
And I was pretty sure I knew what
it was, but I wasn’t entirely sure.
So we got back to base camp
that night, and I texted a picture
to one of my buddies and said,
what do you think this is?
Anyway, it’s a harbor seal. So these
bears were feeding on harbor seals.
And so that night, we were, you know,
sitting back in camp and, you know,
talking about, I wonder how she does it.
And so we were thinking, they’re just
laying in that grass, and they’re waiting
for those seals to come up on those
rocks, and then they’re just
rushing down and getting them.
That was our hypothesis, right?
We flew out the next day.
Because we always go fly the next day
to make sure they’re up,
they’re moving, they’re fine.
We always check on
the bears the next day.
And, as we flew out to that one,
she and those two 2-year-olds
were about 50 meters out in the water,
coming around the corner towards
where these seals were.
And so they’re actually –
the way she was doing it is,
she was coming from the water side
and trying to pin them
in shallow water.
- [inaudible comments from audience]
- So we got – we got really
curious about this.
And the otter guys were really curious
about this too because they were
seeing a lot more mortality in
their otters than they expected.
And it wasn’t something
that looked like it was young otters
that were dying and
old ages that were dying.
And they were also seeing a lot of
otters that were dead with broken,
busted-up skulls. So we put out
these cameras on these islands.
Some of them were on timers, and some
of them were based on motion detection.
And so we have literally tens of
thousands of these images.
So in this one, the thing
circled in yellow is a bear.
The things circled
in white are otter.
So both otter and seals
use these haul-outs.
Anyway, so she’s
going to cruise out there.
The otters took off.
I think she’s probably sniffing otter pee
right now is what she’s doing.
Then she heads back.
So this one was unsuccessful.
Okay, but that’s what
they would look like.
They go out and try
and catch those otters.
But, on occasion – so here’s one
where she was really cooperative.
She caught this otter and brought it
right up to the camera for us.
So that’s an adult
otter she’s feeding on.
So, yeah, I mentioned before
that the – seeing them feed on
flounder was unexpected.
Seeing them feed on seals and sea otters
was really unexpected for us too.
But what’s unique about this
particular resource is there are lots
and lots of bears in the Katmai coast.
But these are really isolated locations.
And it can’t support lots of bears
because they’re territorial enough.
They’re not going to share that
resource with other bears, either.
And so the only time we’ve seen
multiple bears on these islands –
there’s about four different
islands that they use –
has been during
And they just – everybody gets more
tolerant during breeding season.
I guess it’s kind of – goes beyond bears.
But anyway, so everyone’s
pretty chill then.
But then – but, like, this last fall
when we went out, we went to change
the memory card in the camera.
And as we flew in, just a huge male was,
like, 50 feet away from the camera.
And he was fat.
He was a – he was a toad.
And we came – we hovered over him,
and he looked at me, and I swear
to god – I swear to god he rolled
his eyes at me. [laughter]
But then he was, like, all right, fine.
So he got up, and he walked,
like, 50 more feet and just
kind of, like, collapsed down.
And it’s, like,
he’s not getting up again.
We’ll land. We’ll go ahead
and swap it out. He’ll be fine.
But, so there’s sort of a
dominance hierarchy is who can –
who can occupy
those spots, if you will.
So anyway, we came in
wondering about the relationship
between bears and bivalves –
meaning clams and mussels.
But now we’re actually thinking about
the relationship between bears
and bivalves, sea otters and bivalves,
and bears and sea otters.
Okay, so again, they both
utilize the same food resource.
And these islands here provide
haul-outs, both for sea otters and seals.
And we do have some
bears that are actively hunting
both for seals
and sea otters.
And so one of the questions is, does bear
predation affect sea otter populations?
I’ll try and answer
that one in a second.
At least, I’ll show you what
we’re thinking right now.
And then the other is, how important are
marine mammal prey to brown bears?
So, relative to how important they are
to brown bears, I think they’re
really important to a few brown bears.
They’re not important to all brown bears.
Because it’s such
a isolated situation.
But one other thing that I
failed to mention earlier that I –
that I should have –
I can mention it again later.
But relative to what was observed back
in the late ’90s when they saw bears
spending a lot of time feeding on clams,
we’re seeing very little bit –
very little clamming by bears right now.
So something’s changed there. Okay.
All right. And so this is part of
what we think is coming in play.
So another data graph,
but this is the same
three populations I started –
or, I talked about before.
So western Prince William Sound,
Kenai Fjords, and the Katmai coast.
And what this is, is this is
the years 2006 through 2015.
But what we’re measuring is
something called energy recovery rate.
What that actually is
is kilocalories per minute.
It means, how efficient
are you at consuming food?
Okay, so it’s an index of
how much food is available.
The more food that’s available,
the more quickly you can catch it,
the more quickly you
can consume it, right?
So for Kenai Fjords and western Prince
William Sound, what we see is,
through time, that foraging efficiency,
if you will, is relatively unchanged.
Okay, so again, we think there’s
some level of kind of stasis
in those populations.
They’re at equilibrium.
But what we’re seeing is that
the foraging efficiency on the
Katmai coast is decreasing through time.
Okay, so this all ties back to –
they started with
very few otters, lots of food.
Okay. As they consume that food,
you get a lot more otters.
But at some point, they start sort of
out-eating their house and home,
if you will.
And so now they’re
at a point where they’re –
you know, they may be stabilizing.
They also can actually overshoot their
food resources and start declining.
And so what we’re not sure is if that –
if that trend is going to carry down,
or if it’ll stabilize similar to
where the other ones are.
You know, so our thought –
given that the – given that –
I totally lost my train of thought.
I could talk about anything right now.
It was really important.
It’ll come back to me.
Oh, I know what it was.
So how important is
bear predation on otters?
Given how limited geographically
it is that that’s occurring,
it’s probably not that important
from an otter population standpoint.
But when you get a situation where
they have overeaten their food resource,
and they’re already starting to decline,
any extra pressure you add to a
Not – I mean, detrimental
from a biological sense.
It can push that decline
a little bit further down.
The other thing this makes us think is,
the reason that the otter energy intake
is reduced is there’s fewer clams.
Because they’ve been feeding on clams.
Which also may be why bears are
spending less time feeding on clams.
There’s fewer clams.
Bears are really, really smart as foragers.
We’ve done lots of studies
on bears when they’re
foraging on, say, a berry plant.
And if they’re – if they’re
feeding on huckleberries,
they won’t stay and
take every last huckleberry.
They’ll stay until it’s more efficient
for them to go to the next bush.
And then the next bush.
And so it’s not that there
aren’t any clams to eat,
but at some point,
there’s more efficient
ways to make a living, right?
And maybe feeding
on flounder is a better way.
Maybe feeding on
sedges is a better way.
So some of those linkages kind of
come and go as we’ve had changes
in both the otter population
and the – and the bivalves.
Okay. I want to talk
a little bit more about bears
and what they’re
doing out there.
And so what this is –
I mentioned before that we have
these GPS collars out on the bears.
And so this is our study area.
So north to south, it runs the coast.
It’s about 60 miles total.
Just to give you some
kind of frame of reference.
Each color is
an individual bear.
And each dot is an
individual location of that bear.
And so we have some bears –
it’s kind of hard to see.
There’s a gray bear in there
that doesn’t move hardly at all.
You know, her whole home range –
she’s not moving more than
a couple of miles.
We had one bear, that bear in red,
she took one vacation, took one foray,
and came back. [laughter]
But, in essence, what this – what this
comes down to is, when you live in
your grocery store, you don’t
have to go very far to eat.
And when your grocery store
you got things to eat in
the spring, the summer, the fall.
Other places, bears move
around a lot more. Okay.
We have a – we have a study up
in the Brooks Range, which is the
northernmost study – or, northernmost
mountain range in Alaska.
And the home ranges of those bears
absolutely dwarf what we see right here.
And then, the only other thing
I’ll point out here is, Bear 85,
she’s the one in blue in this figure.
So you can actually see those
different islands she was
bouncing around on as well.
- Oh, yeah.
- Okay. So one thing that’s
interesting is trying to understand
what the average
bear is doing.
You kind of manage populations based
on what the average animal is doing.
But the longer I’ve
been doing this,
what’s really actually the most
interesting is the variation that we see.
So this is a – this is one of
those stable isotope graphs.
And so basically we take those
tissue samples – this is for the spring.
Each color – each dot is the
estimated diet of an individual bear.
And what we can do is we can
take samples of the food resources
that are out there, make some
corrections, and the idea is,
whatever food item they lie closest to
is probably what they’re eating. Okay?
And if they’re halfway between two,
they’re probably eating 50/50 of that.
Okay, so most of our bears in the
spring are – they’re vegetarians.
They’re feeding on sedges.
Okay, there’s goose tongue –
things like that they’re feeding on.
But we’ve got a couple bears
that are sort of feeding on vegetation
and marine food items –
sort of halfway between the two.
We’re still doing data analysis.
The study is still going.
But one thing that you can
kind of see too is they’re
not really too drawn to that clam –
that clam square, either.
Okay, so just another way to
kind of get at that information.
And so if we just take one of those
bears – so we’ll take Bear 85 again
just because she’s sort of interesting.
When we estimate her diet, what it
looks like is very likely very little
clam in her diet and then a lot of –
a lot of vegetation and plants –
like, 50/50 between those two.
And again, that’s just her spring diet
before the salmon show up.
Okay, all right.
This is actually a really cool graph.
I just got to – I got to convince you.
I got to explain why it’s a cool graph.
So they’re two graphs side by side.
It’s two different years.
So the graph on the left is 2015,
and the graph on the right is 2016.
The pink boxes show how much the
average bear weighs in the spring.
The green was how much
they weigh in the summer.
And then the blue one is how
much they weigh in the fall.
And then, on the –
on the left side, you can see it.
So they basically go from
330 pounds in the spring
to about 550 pounds in the fall.
And then, of course they lose that
over the winter and then
come back and do it all again.
But body mass itself
isn’t the whole picture.
Remember I said we did the biological
impedance analysis also, to look and
see what’s going on with the –
with their lean mass and their fat.
So same graph, but this is body fat.
So it’s just the body fat
component as a percent.
So you can see, in the spring
and summer, they’re around
10, 12, 15% body fat.
In the fall, they’re up
around 35% body fat.
So they go from, in the spring –
I mean, they’re athletes.
I wish I was
10% body fat.
I haven’t been 10% body fat
since I, like, wrestled in eighth grade.
So – but then, it’s amazing what they do
in terms of those – the fat they put on.
But with females especially,
they enter – you know, they enter
the den, they don’t consume
anything for six to seven months.
They give birth in the den,
and they lactate in the den.
So they’re burning an awful
lot of fuel while they’re there.
Okay. One more thing I wanted to
kind of point out is in relation to
how interesting it is when we
see variation in the population
as opposed to just what the
average animal is doing.
So this particular graph, this is all of
the females we had on Katmai so far,
in the spring,
what their muscle mass is.
So we weigh them,
figure out how much fat they have.
We just toss the fat out
because fat fluctuates so much.
We’re just concerned with,
like, how big are they.
It’s, like, what’s their
actual structural frame size?
And what you can see is that –
these are all adult bears –
is we have some that have about
80 or 90 kilograms of lean mass.
But we have some bears that have
over 200 kilograms of lean mass.
Okay, so there’s a tremendous
amount of variation in these animals.
And we see this is in all
the populations we study.
I was most surprised to see it here.
Because, relative to the foods that are
available, it’s, like, you just can’t screw
up being a bear on the Katmai coast.
There’s so much to eat.
So we thought, why wouldn’t
they all just be big bears?
And so what it is, is there’s different
life history strategies and different
resources different bears are using.
And where something like
this comes into play is,
there’s a benefit to being big.
If you’re big, you tend to
produce more cubs.
And maybe you can
defend those cubs.
And maybe you can go someplace
that a smaller bear wouldn’t want to go.
So it’s a good thing
to be a big bear, right?
The downside, if you’re a big bear,
it’s like having a big house
with a big mortgage.
You got to pay that bill.
You got to drag that
big thing all over the place.
So the other thing that’s
unique on the Katmai coast,
there’s very few wolves,
and there’s no black bears.
And so there’s sort of this
broader niche for them to fill.
And so one of the things
we want to do next is kind of
figure out, let’s see, is it genetic?
Do little bears have little bears?
Or is it more behavioral?
Do you have bold bears that are
willing to take risks and go after
some of these food resources?
They’re willing to go live on
an island that has big males
and feed on seals and sea otters?
So we’ll still trying to ferret that out.
But one last thing
on this graph.
Any thoughts on where the
female with the 2-year-olds
that was feeding on sea otters
and seals might lie on this graph?
- Okay. Right or left?
What do you think? Who thinks right?
- [multiple responses] Right.
- All right. Who thinks left?
There’s always somebody.
All right, come on.
Anyway, there we go. That’s her.
So she is the one.
Anyway, so it’s a good
gig if you can get it.
I just got one slide left, but one
other point I wanted to make is,
what was really telling with this study,
to me, is what was critical,
as we try and sort this all out,
is having information coming from
all these different techniques
and all these data streams.
You know, if we didn’t have
GPS collars out on the bears,
we wouldn’t have known that bear
was off there using those islands.
If we weren’t using video collars,
we never would have known
they were feeding on flounder.
We would have missed that entirely.
If we weren’t actually kind of assessing
the body composition, we wouldn’t have
had the idea of this variation that
we’re seeing within the population.
And then, if Joy wasn’t spending
all summer out there just
watching bears feed, we wouldn’t
have known that things had changed
relative to the relationship with
clams over the past 15 years.
And it was really just fortuitous
that we had a colleague that was
studying sea otters – interested in
sea otters for the purpose of
understanding sea otters that
just happened to overlap
our study area and those
things can be gathered.
So it would have been – I don’t think
for a second we fully understand
what’s going on, but we could
have missed an awful lot of it if we,
you know, hadn’t kind of
been coming from multiple angles.
So – but again, it’s –
for me, it’s –
that’s when it gets fun is when
you get – when you get surprised.
Just a couple of
If folks are curious about this –
about this project,
it’s in conjunction
with the National Parks Service.
And they spend a lot of time
focusing on education and outreach.
So if you Google “Changing Tides,”
you’ll – there’s a whole web page
dedicated to this. They got a bunch
of YouTube videos out there.
And then one other group that I haven’t
mentioned yet that we spend a lot of
time working with and benefiting
from are the commercial bear viewers –
bear viewing guides
that are out there.
There are people, that’s their business.
And so it was really important for us
to talk to them to understand why
we were doing what we were doing.
For them to – you know,
to an extent, to buy into that.
They make our studies better
because they’re out there day after day,
and they see things,
and they share things with us.
We’re also learning things that we
can share with them they can then
tell their clients. And so it’s a really
important relationship out there.
And so regardless of where we’re
working, it’s important to work with
the people who your work may
impact for the good or for the bad.
And that’s all I’ve got. So I appreciate
your time and your attention tonight.
And I’m happy to take – I know I –
I think I went the full hour,
but I’m happy to take questions or
stick around as long as you want.
But anyway, thanks for your
time and your attention.
[ Applause ]
- Okay. And, again, if you have
any questions, we have a mic
in the center of the room and then
one on the other side over there.
If you like, you can also –
I’ll bring you a mic if you’d
like to stay in
your seat as well.
- I’m just curious about
how the bears eat the clams.
Do they swallow the shells?
- They definitely swallow some,
but they just – they just sort of
crunch the thing up, and they’ll
kind of lick at it and work at it.
And they’re fast. They can catch and
consume several clams a minute.
So, as Joy is putting together her data,
she’s putting together what are called
activity budgets. Just how are
bears spending their day,
broken down by time, but also,
what’s their foraging efficiency.
So if they’re on sedges, how many
bites are they taking per minute?
When they’re feeding on clams,
how are they doing it?
And, like, with flounder, how fast can
they catch – can they catch flounder.
So, yeah. They’re a little sloppy,
but yeah, so … [laughter]
- How stable are
the bear populations?
Are they – and how do they
fluctuate from year to year?
- So what’s been interesting for me
through my career – I started working –
early in my career,
I worked for the State of Alaska.
And so, on state lands, hunting is legal.
And so it’s a whole different level of
impact that people can have,
and it’s also a situation where
you have to watch the population
demographics much, much closer.
In the case of these populations
that are in parks, for the most part,
we feel like
they’re pretty stable.
I mentioned there were four different
studies we were looking at.
So given what’s
going on right now,
we feel good about the
population on the Katmai coast.
If we were having an oil spill, I think
some bears would change their behavior.
I wouldn’t necessarily expect
to see population-level effects.
Some of the other studies we put
together were because there were
new roads being proposed in areas
that weren’t presently roaded,
usually to access mineral deposits –
things like that.
The thing you get most concerned about
relative to bear management is access.
If people can get there,
they’re will interact with wildlife,
and you’re going to have an increase
in – whether it’s fishing or hunting.
And that can be okay. You’ve just
got to watch it and regulate it.
So from a long – I’m being
In Alaska, brown bear populations
overall are quite stable.
Brown bears are listed in the lower 48.
They’re not listed in Alaska.
They’re not a threatened species.
You know, and so statewide – there’s
about 30,000 brown bears in the state.
- About 30,000 bears altogether?
- Yeah. Yeah. Yep.
- Brown bears. Yeah.
- Any problems with
tourists feeding these things?
Or is that a – is that an issue
in some ways? [chuckles]
- How much time do you have?
So, I – this is not a bear story.
It’s a moose story.
The very first time I went to
the Kenai – it’s a small airport.
Probably a couple folks
here have been to the Kenai.
Yeah. You’ve been to the
Kenai airport. Super small.
So you pull out of the airport,
and there’s an Arby’s right there.
And I’ve driving by the Arby’s, and at
the drive – at the drive-through window,
the woman working there is feeding
hamburger buns to the moose.
You know, so – yeah.
It’s just – yeah. I mean,
so it’s a bit of an issue.
But it’s not the tourists.
It’s the locals.
The locals are
the worst, honestly.
But I’m kind of being tongue-in-cheek.
We, collectively, whether it’s the state
or the federal government or
anybody that manages land,
we spend a ton of money trying to
educate people not to feed bears.
Because once a bear becomes
habituated to human food, it very likely
is going to end up getting killed.
That’s almost always the outcome.
Because they become bold to a level
that’s just not tolerable to people.
people get hurt.
But almost invariably,
the bear ends up getting killed.
So we – yeah, Parks Service,
Fish and Wildlife Service,
Department of Fish and Game –
lots of bumper stickers around
Anchorage – a fed bear is a dead bear.
That’s sort of the slogan.
So we work on
that really hard.
- Okay, thanks.
- What is the length –
the average lifetime?
- Okay. So, yeah, average
lifespan of a brown bear.
Thirty years is a really
old bear in the wild.
I think the oldest bear
I’ve ever handled was 32.
Yeah, so – yeah.
- Yeah. Do you have a question?
- Why do you want to study bears?
- Why do we want to study bears?
So there’s lots of different –
there’s lots of different reasons.
You know, one is, you know,
they’re interesting, they’re fascinating,
all those kinds of things.
But because of who I work for,
the studies we put together is
because other agencies or organizations
ask us to go answer
So in this case, the people that
ran the park said, we want to know
something about what’s important to
bears so if we have an oil spill, we know
where to go to try and protect them,
to try and keep them away from a – you
know, either to treat the oil or to kind of,
you know, keep the bears out of an area.
In the case of bear viewing,
also they want to get an idea of –
a whole part of the study I didn’t talk
about was, we have bears that live where
bear viewers come, and we have bears
that live where bear viewers don’t come.
And so when the bear viewers come,
it’s really neat for them to come
see bears, but we want them to
come see bears in a way that
doesn’t disturb the bears
or affect the bears in a bad way.
So that’s one reason
we want to study them.
Another reason is,
in places where they’re hunted,
we want to be sure that
they don’t kill too many bears.
So there’s always enough bears.
So there’s always kind of a
stable population there.
- Yeah. You got another question?
- No, I’m fine.
- All right. That – I just want to say,
no offense to anybody else,
that was the best question.
- So thank you.
[ Applause ]
- We’re not quite done yet.
- No pressure.
- No, that’s okay. [laughter]
I just can’t compete.
So anyway, speaking of, like,
the oil spill and, you know,
why you’re out there, now,
you mentioned the one slide
where the otters – right after the oil spill,
you know, the regular otters would die off.
- Did your research show
what they died from?
Was it a direct
contact with the oil?
Or was it that their food source, like the
clams, got taken out? Do you know?
- I think – I think you get some of both.
And I’m going to – I’m going to
throw the caveat that I know –
I don’t know a ton about bears.
I know a lot more about
bears than I know about otters.
So I don’t want to get too
far out into what they’ve seen.
But it was a – it was a –
it was ecosystem-level effects.
And so I talked about what
was going on with otters.
- There’s been studies on the bivalves.
There’s been studies
on the bird populations.
And there’s a group called the Exxon
Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.
And they’ve funded work
for the past 25 years.
And just about two years ago,
we were able to officially say
that both sea otter and harlequin duck
had returned to pre-spill levels.
You know, it’s that long-lasting
sort of ecological-type effect.
- So there was obviously the direct stuff
you see, which is oiled
animals that don’t survive that.
But there’s the
lingering effects also.
- And were there – did you have
statistics on the bear population as well?
- Yeah. There actually has been almost no
bear research in Prince William Sound.
And some of the previous work
that was done on the Katmai coast
was done after the spill. So it’s just –
it’s such a – it’s such a big state.
It’s not because I’m insecure. It’s
because it’s really a big state. [laughter]
It’s such a big state, that there’s a lot of
areas we don’t know very much about.
And so, you know, in the case of – like,
some of the other studies that we’re –
that we’re working on, where we
know there’s a road coming,
we can get in there before the road
and try and get baseline information
so we know
what it’s like before.
We can help inform folks.
Okay, maybe this is a better place
to put in your road versus that place.
Or maybe you want to think about
where you’re going to cross the stream.
Things like that.
So the rub is when you have a big
catastrophic event like the spill,
typically, you don’t have the
pre-spill information to turn to.
We had a lot better information
on things like fisheries because
those were important from
an economic standpoint,
so there’s more money
invested in looking at that.
But one of the really big things,
for people that are somewhat
familiar with Alaska, relative to
black bears in particular,
in Prince William Sound, is that
recently they put a tunnel in
that allows you to get from Anchorage
to Whittier much easier.
And so the thought was, as you
get more – it goes back to access.
It’s not a road, but it’s a place you can
put your boat to get out in the sound
to then – more people,
more access, more hunting.
And so that’s – relative to black bears,
that’s what we’re actually thinking
about right now is harvest levels
in Prince William Sound, so …
- Okay, thanks for coming
down and talking to us.
- Yeah. No problem.
Hey, I – it was 11 inches of
snow or you guys. [laughter]
So you guys. So, yeah.
- I actually have four questions.
- All right. [laughter]
- Well, first one, you showed a picture of
the whale and two bears feeding on that.
Was that just the two?
Or were there, you know,
more bears that were
fed out of that whale?
- Yeah. So that particular bear
was up by Douglas Head.
We only saw the two that day,
but we saw other bears other days.
And so there’s definitely
other bears that are coming in.
Another really quick anecdote.
Polar bears are really, really solitary,
but one place we see polar bears
actually congregate is
they’ll congregate around
whale carcasses also.
So that – there’s just – there’s almost
so much food, there’s not much
reason in fighting over it, I guess.
- So, but, okay, so that was one.
- Okay. Second one was, why do you
think sea otters haven’t been, like,
a primary source
of food for bears?
I mean, you said they
started to feed on sea otters.
- Why haven’t they been …
- So I think – and so I don’t want to –
I don’t want to try and over-emphasize
the geography over which
that can probably occur.
There’s probably a limited number of
places where that interaction can happen.
- I see. Okay.
- That’s part one. And in terms of this
area in particular, if you go back
20 years, there were almost no sea otters
there because they were still recovering
from the fur trade back in the day.
And so, back when they did that original
study looking at bears feeding on clams,
one, you could have had
bears off on those islands.
They just couldn’t have
seen them that far out.
But there also weren’t the
number of otters, either.
- I see. Okay.
- The seals were probably
always there, though.
- Oh. So seals have been a food source?
- Don’t really know. Yeah.
- Okay. Yeah. No research, I guess.
- Yeah. Anecdotally, we’ll hear
about people seeing it on occasion.
- Oh. I see.
- But I think – I think, for the most part,
we thought, more often than not,
they would come across
a carcass and feed on it.
But in terms of actually kind of
going out and hunting – yeah, so.
- And third question was, can you
speak to any effects of climate change
that you’ve seen?
- Any effects of climate change, yeah.
So I think – you know, one of the
reasons that we’re looking at the clams
so closely is – I mean, I care about
clams because of their effect on –
potentially on bears as
a lost food resource.
There are people that care about clams
because they like to harvest clams
and people that care about clams
just because they like clams.
You know, and so – but part of
the reason that we’re concerned
about ocean acidification is
directly tied to greenhouse gases.
It is tied to climate change.
That’s an effect that we’re seeing.
The other is the branch that I – that I –
the marine branch that I oversee,
we do polar bear work also. Our polar
bear folks are out there right now.
And in the United States – so globally,
there’s 19 different sort of
sub-populations of polar bears.
Two exist in the United States.
One is the southern Beaufort Sea, and
we share that population with Canada.
And the other is the Chukchi Sea, and
we share that population with Russia.
So I kept talking about distance to the
grocery store during my talk, right?
So there’s different things going on
in the Chukchi versus the Beaufort.
And what’s unique with the Beaufort
is it has a really, really thin continental
shelf. Okay, it just doesn’t go very
far offshore, then it gets deep.
That shallow water
is what’s productive.
And so that’s the
grocery store for the bears.
As that ice recedes, rather than
kind of living over that productive –
you know, that productive grocery store,
they have to make a choice.
They either follow the ice
and go further and further away,
which means they’re
swimming further and further,
and there’s probably fewer seals that
are coming up, or they stay on land.
Which is a whole different ecosystem –
whole different situation.
When you go to the Chukchi,
it’s a much broader continental shelf.
It’s a much more
And so we don’t seem to have the
same concerns or see the same effects
in the Chukchi that we do
in the southern Beaufort.
And so, long-winded,
by sea ice is a big one for us.
I mean, every third day, in our paper,
the front page is the current sea ice map.
What’s interesting is, part of the
reason people up there pay attention
is they’re concerned
about climatic effects.
They’re also thinking about
increased economic opportunity
because it’s opening up
shipping routes, coming both,
you know, from the Europe side
and from the Canadian side.
And so then we start thinking about,
well, what are the effects of
ship traffic on things like
walrus, whales, that kind of thing.
So, all right,
you got one more.
- Well, do you have a favorite
memory of interaction with bears?
- Oh, man.
- Thank you.
- Okay, so I’m going to
slightly change the question.
I’m going to talk
about my favorite bear.
And so, when I was in grad school
in Pullman, Washington, we actually
have a population of captive bears.
They were all bears that got orphaned
for whatever reason, so they would come
there, and we would take care of them.
And a lot of – like, the stable isotope
stuff that I showed, we had to validate
that with captive animals first.
We fed them a known diet, and then
we would see how it would, you know,
kind of move through their system.
That’s how we figured out, okay, so in
about – you know, serum tells me what
they’ve been eating for the last 10 days,
where blood cells tell me longer.
Anyway, there was this bear.
Her name was Ruth.
And she was a black bear, and she had
this funny thing where she would shed
out all of her hair in the spring, except
she had this big patch on the back.
And it just stayed there.
And because she wouldn’t shed,
it got bleached out through time,
so she was this black bear with these,
like, bleach blonde,
She was, like, a total, like, rasta bear.
And she was – she was kind of
a party girl. [laughter]
And so I really liked Ruth.
Ruth was awesome, so – yeah.
- Funding. How is the funding
predicted for [inaudible]?
Is everybody really nervous?
- I think the right answer,
and the honest answer,
is funding is likely to change for us.
We’re going to – we’re going to try
and do the best work we can
with whatever comes our way.
You know, the way – the way USGS
works is, we have some internal funding,
but a lot of the work we get comes from
other Department of Interior agencies.
So, in this case – you know, so, like,
I’m doing this work, but the Park
Service funded the vast majority of it.
Because they decided, amongst the
things they’re interested in, this is
important. You guys come do this work.
For our polar bear work, a lot of that
comes from the Fish and Wildlife
Service because they’re the ones that
manage the endangered species program.
A lot of our walrus funding came
from the Bureau of Offshore Energy
Management, because they were –
they wanted to know about, okay,
we’re going to permit oil
and gas leases offshore.
What do we know about walrus?
And so it kind of – our budgets
sort of move with other
agencies, if that makes sense.
Yeah, so, but – how do I –
what’s the phrase?
I’m not buying any green bananas.
Is that something – anyway.
Yeah. I’ve got one in the back,
and then I’ll come back.
- I’ve been waiting.
- Yeah, so you knew you wouldn’t
get out of here without a bear attack
story. So I worked at Stanford ICU in
the 1970s. And we took care of Cynthia.
And I was wondering if you could
give us an update on Cynthia,
if it’s ethical to disclose how
she’s doing, what’s going on.
- So …
- I know she lost both her arms …
- … to a bear attack.
- She was a USGS field scientist.
- She came to the talk this afternoon.
So I had a chance to –
chance to meet her.
So a couple of things in my –
you know …
- You might explain it to the rest
of the people what happened.
- Yeah, so I actually don’t know all
the details of her – of her – you know,
I talked to her some, but I didn’t
necessarily ask her for the, you know …
- Well, the story we got at the
hospital was, she was doing some
kind of field survey not related to bears.
- And they took her out
by helicopter someplace,
dropped her off, and within
about 20 minutes or so,
she was confronted by a
female black bear or brown bear.
- Yeah. She had said it
was a black bear, yeah.
- Yeah. Okay, a small bear.
Not even 150 pounds.
And she tried to scare it off,
and nothing succeeded.
- And it pulled her down off of a rock,
and she managed,
after about 20 minutes
of being attacked, to get to her
walkie-talkie and call the helicopter
back, and that’s what saved her life.
And at the hospital, she said, give me
a gun if I ever go back out into that.
- Yeah. I think – I’m going to keep
my response to less than three minutes.
I think I can do that.
Two things in my past.
One was at the Park Service.
I taught bear safety, which is not –
it’s how to be safe out in bear country.
And I also – when I worked for Fish
and Game, and for the Park Service,
I was involved in the investigation
of three fatal maulings.
happen very often.
But it’s – to say it’s life-changing
is an understatement.
What we would always try and convey
relative to bear safety, when you’re
out there, is – I’m going to pick
my words really, really carefully.
It’s incredibly rare.
It’s incredibly rare.
But when it happens, it’s catastrophic.
Okay? So there are things people
can do to minimize your risk.
You can never drive it to zero.
A couple of things that are – that are
take-home messages if you end up
in places where you – where,
you know, is bear country.
One is sows with cubs is a big deal.
You know, females are far more
defensive when they have –
when they have cubs with them.
The vast majority of bear attacks are
because somebody surprises a bear.
So travel in groups.
Make a ton of noise.
Scientists and people that are out there,
we’re the worst because we
get fixated on
what we’re doing.
You know, we don’t –
I’ve done things that were not smart.
I’ve done stream surveys walking up
and down a stream not making noise.
So those are things
we try and think about.
The other part of it is, there’s a
difference in how you respond
to a brown bear attack
versus a black bear attack.
Most brown bear
attacks are defensive.
You surprise them, or you think –
you think they’re a threat.
Most black bear attacks,
which are rare, are predatory attacks.
It’s an entirely
what happened with Cynthia.
Because usually you can scare bears
away. But if a bear is fixated on you as,
you know, potentially being something
to eat, then it’s a different situation.
What I always try and, you know,
leave folks with is – and I say this with,
you know, absolute respect to the people
that I’ve talked to that have been through
attacks, and family members that have
lost people to attacks, is I don’t want to
discourage anybody from going out
and enjoying the outdoors.
But there’s things you can do that can
greatly increase the likelihood of you
having a really enjoyable experience.
And it’s a weird thing to teach
bear safety, but at the end,
hope people are more likely to
go out than less likely to go out.
That’s what we would kind of strive for.
The other part, relative to a gun, is –
the short version is there’s different tools
you can use. You just better know
how to use a tool you got. Okay?
So when I go by myself,
I usually don’t take a gun.
If I’ve got, like, my kids with me,
I’m a lot more likely to take a gun.
It’s just – it’s nonsensical, but it’s
just sort of, you know, the way it is.
- During your talk, you mentioned
research a lot about females.
And I’m wondering if males
are part of your research.
That’s part of the question.
And then, you didn’t get much
into the salmon portion of things.
And so is the data that
you showed us exclusive to
the pre-run movement and …
- … are those bears then
congregating in one spot?
- Right. Yeah.
- Are the – are the female bears
more interesting because they’re
actually moving around doing …
- … different stuff to avoid
- Yeah, so the reason we focus on
males in a lot of studies – there’s
some that are – there’s some that are
biological, and there’s some
that are just practical.
So the part that’s biological,
especially on the demographics,
is boys are sperm donors.
That’s – we don’t have any
other import than that except,
you know, we kill a few cubs.
And so, like, in places where
bears are hunted, to be honest,
you can kill about as
many males as you want to.
If you start killing females,
it’s a whole different deal.
So that’s part of why we
tend to focus on females.
In this particular study, though,
one thing we would like to know is
we would like to know, are those really
small home ranges we see for females,
do males do the same thing?
Or are they connected to the bears
at Brooks Camp, or the bears at
McNeil, and things like that?
The reason we didn’t collar males
in this study is their necks are
bigger than their heads.
It’s … [laughter]
So the collars don’t stay on.
So, I mean, kind of an aside,
we’re actually – the sea otter folks
with USGS that are based here in
California are working with some folks
at NASA to try and – because for us,
it’s all about – it’s all about weight
and battery life and
what can we do.
And so they’re working on
smaller tags for sea otters.
For us, what we want to do is we want
to put those in the ears of males.
Because I’d love to know what
was going on with them.
We just can’t keep
them collared, you know.
- You also can’t keep
tags in the ears a lot of times.
- Right. These ones are – I put the – so,
like, maybe 15 years ago, they had these
big – these big radio tags. And we
tried them in the males in some ears.
Ears of some males.
Sorry. Low blood sugar.
They might have lasted 15 minutes
after those guys woke up. [laughter]
They were just gone.
So, you know, almost – but what
they will keep in – at least some of them
will keep in, are just, like, the
livestock tags for identification.
We don’t do that in these studies,
but I mean, I – if a third of those
would stay in, I would consider
putting some of those out.
There are other populations where the
males aren’t as big, and we actually do
collar males there. And so it’s not
that we don’t necessarily want to know.
The other question you asked is,
the map I showed of distribution,
that was for the entire year.
- But what’s unique on the Katmai coast,
relative to someplace like McNeil or
Brooks Camp where it’s, like, if they
have a big run of sockeye that’s really
congregated in one area, there’s lots and
lots of small runs of pink salmon.
And so the salmon are pretty distributed,
and so if we were to break it down by
certain times, we could – I’m sure
we could actually go and see them
foraying and making those fishing
bouts and that kind of thing.
And I didn’t mean to under-emphasize
the importance of salmon.
It’s just that part we kind of
thought we knew, and I sort of
focused on the stuff
that surprised us. Yeah.
Yeah, go ahead.
- I had a guide in Alaska say,
do you know the difference between
a brown bear and a grizzly?
He said they’re the same bear.
Brown bears are coastal.
Grizzlies are interior. [inaudible]?
- It’s the same species.
It’s the same species.
- Yeah. And a lot of it – what you tend
to have it coastal bears feed on salmon.
Their moms and dads fed on salmon.
Their grandma and grandpas
fed on salmon, so they just –
they’re bigger through time.
But it’s the same species.
They’ll interbreed, all that kind of stuff.
One thing – I mentioned those
captive bears we had in Pullman,
though, back in the day.
We got a couple of yearlings in
that were interior
British Columbia bears.
And those two males
were over 950 pounds.
So if they have access to the right food
resources, grizzly bears can get big.
You know, and I guess, if they were
underfed, brown bears can be –
can be – can be pretty small.
But it’s the same species.
It’s more of a
And, to an extent, it’s even – it’s even,
like, a Boone and Crockett hunting thing.
Because, based on where you hunt
the bear, it’s going to get scored
a different way and be
compared to other bears.
But it’s – and it’s the same species
of bears that you have in Yellowstone
and Glacier and things too.
It’s the same species of bear
that you have in Italy and
Mongolia and everyplace else.
So do you guys realize how widely
distributed brown bears are?
Yeah. I mean, they’re basically the
whole northern hemisphere, so –
where they’re allowed
to be at this point, so …
- They have grizzly bears in Italy?
- They do. Yeah. About 40 of them.
Yeah, up in the northeast part
up in the mountains, yeah.
- In Italy, yeah.
Yeah, go ahead.
- Now, the video of you in
the helicopter, when you were
[inaudible] bears, they obviously
was really scared.
They were running away.
- And, I mean, was it just running from you
because they’ve been hunted?
Do you ever encounter grizzlies
that do not have
a fear of humans?
- Yeah, so actually,
what’s interesting – so these –
so these bears in this
area are not hunted.
And these guys run a lot less than
places where bears are hunted.
What’s unique here is there’s so much
air traffic because of all the bear viewers
coming in. They’re really
used to the sound of aircraft.
And the helicopter that we use – not to
be – so we don’t use a jet helicopter.
We use – we use basically
a piston engine helicopter.
It’s much, much quieter.
Because we don’t want to
disturb everything else while
we’re out there doing it and stuff.
And so it’s absolutely
a stressful event for them.
We just try and make it
go as short as possible.
But – and so, in a lot of ways,
these guys respond to the helicopter
less than bears other places.
And they respond to the helicopter the
second time we dart them a lot more
than the first time we dart them.
So a lot of times, the first time we
dart them, like, they don’t move
until we’re within maybe 50 meters.
And they kind of do a double-take.
Like, what’s going on?
- So they’ve identified the sound
of your helicopter and
the sight [inaudible].
- [inaudible] …
- Well, so I – so one interesting thing is,
we had the video collars out, and we
had – this is a sample size of one.
But we actually – we’ve got her walking
along, and she’s just walking along,
and she’s doing the beach salad thing.
She’s eating, she’s eating,
she’s eating – this is in July
when we’re going to do this
recapture to see how she’s doing.
And she’s walking,
and you see her stop.
And then you don’t see it, but you
hear the audio – fn, fn, fn, fn, fn.
And she turns, and we come
over the rise in the helicopter.
And then she takes about five steps.
And the way the video collars are –
the way the video collars are
programmed is it takes a minute
of video, and then it’s
off for nine minutes,
then a minute of video,
then it’s off for nine minutes.
So right as we came over the top,
that minute was over, so that was it.
But it was interesting because, in that
case, she didn’t run very much at all.
But, so …
- We have time for one more
question in the back. Ma’am?
- Yeah. Question – you said there
were about 30,000 of these brown bears
in Alaska or your study area.
And also, I was thinking,
when you talked about the funding and
where the sources come from, about how
many jobs for people are there in your
study area that are about hunting or
fishing versus, say, the viewing of bears?
- Because I was just thinking,
you know, your funding sources,
are they changing – is hunting stable
or growing, or is the viewing of –
I keep thinking of leaf
peeping and bear peeping.
Is that – is that rising and all
the jobs associated with it?
- Yeah. So let’s see.
Lots of layers to that question.
So, in terms of – so, like,
bear research jobs, there’s probably
five or six jobs like that in the state.
And there’s, you know, maybe three
or four of us that are sort of on that team
looking at that – at that particular issue.
The kind of questions you ask
and where your funding comes from
depends a lot on who you’re –
who you’re working for.
So when I worked for the
Department of Fish and Game early on,
the vast majority of state
Fish and Game funds
comes from basically excise tax
on firearms and ammunition sales.
And so it’s very much driven towards
state lands and harvest management.
Working for the Department of Interior,
when we’re doing work on parks,
it’s much more geared towards
the resource itself and then
tourism management, education,
and things like that.
Fish and Wildlife Service is somewhat
intermediate because they have
both activities going on.
Really quick little factoid, though.
There’s – for the Park Service in Alaska,
there’s 70 million acres of parks.
40 million acres
are open to hunting.
But it’s subsistence hunting,
for the most part.
So that was part of the agreement
that was made with the native
communities and the local folks.
Because a lot of the park lands
were just established in 1980.
So they’re not that – they’re not that old.
So even the Park Service,
you’re thinking about
harvest management, to an extent.
I think hunting is relatively stable
because there’s only a certain number of
animals that can be harvested every year.
There’s a big commercial
component to it as well.
And that’s more limited. The tourism
industry is increasing in general.
You can sort of track the world economy
based on who’s coming over, you know,
whether it’s folks from Germany
or Japan or Portugal or whatever.
So it may be that the
And our economy may
not be doing great,
but there’s still a lot
of people visiting Alaska.
- All right.
- Thanks again for your time.
[ Applause ]
- I want to thank you all for coming.
Have a good night.
[ Silence ]