By Joseph Robertia
Heidi Hanson, of Soldotna, has for several years spent her summer evenings making the drive to the 19-mile-long Skilak Lake Loop Road to look for wildlife. Most years if she sees a bear every few forays she considers herself lucky, so this year has been nothing short of a wildlife-viewing jackpot.
“I’ve gone six or seven times this week and each time I’ve seen at least one bear, and on one of the days I saw a black bear with three cubs, another with two cubs and another single bear, all within about two miles and 15 minutes,” she said. “That’s definitely way more bears than I would usually see.”
Hanson has seen other wildlife, as well, primarily porcupines waddling down the road, nearly every time she has been out that way. Her belief is that more animals are in the area as a result of the nearly 306-square-mile Funny River Fire, which is still burning in some places south of Skilak Lake.
While this observation is anecdotal, Kevin Hayes, of Kasilof, also had some unusual animal sightings in his neck of the peninsula when the fire peaked near Kasilof, and as recently as last week.
“The day after the fire was close and had filled the area with thick smoke, I saw caribou down along the Kasilof River in the flats area around Last Chance Hole, where Coal Creek comes down,” he said.
“Then, a few days ago, while driving home on the Sterling Highway, I was just coming up on the guardrailed section just south of the bridge across the Kasilof River when I saw something big pop out of the woods,” he said.
Over the last decade and a half that Hayes has lived in Kasilof, he has seen many coyotes while driving between home and Kenai or Soldotna, but said that this wild canine wasn’t one of them.
“This was a big, tall, good-looking wolf. I got to within 40 yards of it. It just casually moved into the clearing adjacent to the road, then crossed the highway,” he said. “Seeing two species I’ve never seen before (in this area), I would think the fire had something to do with it.”
Jeff Selinger, area wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said that there have been reports of animals moving through neighborhoods, primarily south of Soldotna to Kasilof, some of which might be displacement from the fire. But he said that it’s too early to say for certain how much wildlife displacement has occurred or how long it may last.
“Young animals and nesting birds probably took the fire the hardest, but a lot were probably able to stay ahead of the fire, and while the perimeter was nearly 200,000 acres and scorched a lot of area within it, there were also pockets that didn’t burn,” he said.
As an example, Selinger said that one of the GPS-collared female brown bears — that is part of a long-term study on population dynamics — didn’t move from the area within the fire where it has historically lived.
“It stayed right in the center of the fire event in one of these pockets,” he said.
Selinger said that, since the blaze occurred prior to the sockeye making their way to spawning beds in the rivers and creeks throughout the burn area, as things cool down those brown bears displaced by the fire will likely move back to where they annually feed on salmon.
“I think a lot will stay close to where they were before,” he said.
Despite the fire possibly pushing some brown bears into neighborhoods, Selinger said there has not been an uptick in “defense of life or property” shootings.
“If anything, we’re down compared to usual. We haven’t had any,” he said Monday.
Selinger said that there has only been one brown bear shot in a DLP situation this year, Friday in the Robinson Loop area, but the shooter could not confirm that they killed the bruin, and when Fish and Game tried tracking the wounded animal in the heavy rain that day, they could not find a corpse.
“Right now that one is listed as an unknown,” Selinger said.
The decrease in DLPs might be from increased management effort by Fish and Game. Selinger said that the hunting season was changed in 2013 from a drawing permit to a registration hunt, running from Sept. 1, 2013, through May 31, 2014. During this period roughly 120 brown bears died from a combination of hunting, DLPs (in late 2013) and other human-caused mortalities, such as vehicle collisions or Fish and Game euthanasias.
As for black bears, Selinger said that they prefer deeper, denser forest than brown bears, so their population could be more susceptible to displacement this year as a result of the fire, which could explain increased sightings in the Skilak area. But again, it might not be for the long term, as the regeneration of vegetation in the fire area will bring up shoots black bears will want to feed on.
The same could be true for moose, although it takes a hot fire, burning deep into the duff layer to bring back vegetation with the best nutritional value, Selinger said, and since the Funny River Fire was wind driven and fast-moving during much of its initial growth period, it might not produce optimal vegetation regrowth.
“I think it’ll be better than what was there, and I’m hoping for good hardwood regeneration,” Selinger said. “But I don’t think we’ll see regeneration like we did with the birch and willow after the ’69 fire in (Game Management Unit) 15A (Swanson River area), where it burned really slow and hot.”
Moose numbers in the area of the fire might be negatively affected, since the burn occurred during a time of the year when many cows typically give birth, but Selinger said that it was too early to know if or how many calves might not have made it.
“We’ll be doing a moose census this fall,” he said. “And we, along with other agencies, are already in the planning process to determine how best to monitor the return of moose and other wildlife after the fire, so we should know more in the future.”