Winter means hibernation for some – but not all – of Kodiak Island’s bear population

A Kodiak “ice bear” during a recent snowfall. Photo: Jennifer Fogle Smith

Jennifer Fogle Smith is a wildlife photographer in Kodiak. She’s been documenting the island’s bears for over 20 years – and she has some stories.

“This last year I had a beautiful sub adult, female, who was very athletic, was an acrobat,” she said. “And she had a beautiful, brilliant red salmon and she picked it up, and then she caught it, and then she threw it up in the air again, and caught it fully extended and then she played with it for a little while and then she sauntered down the beach.”

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She calls moments like that magic. They’re harder to come by in the winter, but this year was special – thanks to an earlier than usual snowfall and frigid November temperatures.

“Mixed all together, we had bears that we could see that were actively fishing and they would be covered in ice,” said Fogle Smith.” And ice bears are kind of unique and exciting to see.”

Larry Van Daele was the bear biologist on Kodiak Island for 34 years, and most recently served on the Board of Game. He retired last summer. Van Daele said the last time the ice bears were out was four or five years ago.

“And it’s an opportunistic thing as well because we have a group of bears here on the road system, especially this year, that are real tolerant of people,” he said. “And they’ve stayed out longer than usual on the salmon streams because the silver salmon are running real late.”

Most Kodiak bears hibernate during winter, but about 30% of males continue foraging for food year round. Photo: Jennifer Fogle Smith

There’s over 3,000 bears on Kodiak and the surrounding islands. They’re the largest species of brown bear in the world. And they’re generally less aggressive than their Interior relatives – grizzlies. Van Daele said Kodiak bears don’t have to fight over food and territory like other brown bears, thanks to Kodiak’s expansive habitat and food sources, and they’ll generally stay within one or two drainages looking for food.

“The bears on the north end of the island don’t go down to the south end to go fishing,” he said. “They just use basically what’s in their backyard.”

By late November and into early December, they head into their dens for hibernation, but not all of them. About 30% of the Kodiak male bear population don’t den at all, according to Nate Svoboda, the state’s area management biologist with Fish and Game.

“So, there are bears out and about on Kodiak Island year round,” he said. “And that’s an important thing as a manager to know and certainly an important thing to know as a resident of the island.”

Those bears spend their time foraging and intermittently bedding down under spruce trees – kind of like a winter nap schedule. Biologists don’t know exactly why some of the bears don’t hibernate, but Svoboda said it is unique. Running across a Kodiak bear in winter is unlikely, but it can happen.

“And if you do, I think it’s important to realize that, you know, bears this time of year are very slow and lethargic,” said Svoboda. “Their metabolism is slowed down, they’re moving very slow, so they might not respond to people like they will in the summer.”

There’s been just one bear-related fatality on Kodiak Island in the last 75 years. And the last attack was back in late summer of 2020 when a runner surprised a bear on a trail on Pillar Mountain, just above town. Svoboda said Fish and Game managers from all over the country call him for advice on how to cut down on interactions between humans and bears. He said locals’ respect for bears is key to that relative harmony. Part of that is economic – visitors fly to Kodiak Island for bear sightseeing tours and trophy hunting trips. But veteran bear biologist Larry Van Daele said there’s also a cultural pretext.

“The Alutiiq people, the Sugpiaq people, who were the original stewards of this land, they have a very strong tradition of respecting bear,” he said. “And I think the other folks that have come over the years have blended in with that strong tradition of respect.”

Svoboda said the bears will be out of their dens by June.

Editor’s note: The last beat attack occurred in 2020, not 2019.

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