By Jenny Neyman
By the calendar, it’s winter in Alaska. Usually by the end of November, the Kenai Peninsula has gotten at least one coating of a couple inches of snow and marked temperatures dipping into the teens or single digits. But this year, winter as usual has yet to arrive. With temperatures in the 30s and just a scant dusting of snow, it feels more like October than nearly December, and wildlife aren’t falling for it supposedly being winter.
Bears, in particular, are still in fall activity mode.
“We had reports last week of bears getting in to garbage or Dumpsters,” said Jeff Selinger, area wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Soldotna, on Monday.
A brown bear was reported getting into Dumpsters and breaking into a garage seeking garbage stored inside in a neighborhood about five miles out Funny River Road, Selinger said.
The Kenai Peninsula Bears page on Facebook has a few reports of bear sightings, as well, including a black bear checking out a neighbor’s chickens on St. Theresa Road in Sterling, posted Nov. 19. Another black bear was seen heading into Woodland Estates in Kenai, posted Nov. 19, and a walker reported seeing fresh bear tracks near Hidden Creek on Nov. 4.
Selinger said that his office gets reports of bears out and about every month of the year on the Kenai, so there’s no guaranteed safe period when all bears are tucked away for the winter, but most by now are denned up for the winter.
“Generally speaking, the majority of your animals, by about mid-November, most should be in the den. Some animals go in a little earlier than others, but usually by now they’re all pretty much denned up,” he said.
“Daylight, snow cover, how much fat they have on them — there’s a lot of factors that can play into it. Usually they want to wait until the ground freezes a little bit and makes it better for digging dens, they don’t cave in as easily. It’s a lot of factors all rolled into one. Generally speaking, the warmer it is the more likely they are to stay out longer,” Selinger said.
Particularly if bears find a food source, they’ll dally awhile before seeking their den this time of year, if an easy meal coincides with mild temperatures and a lack of snow. That’s why it’s as important now as in the spring or height of summer to minimize bear attractants as much as possible. Keep garbage in bear-resistant containers. Secure chickens and other livestock. Don’t leave pet food or bird feeders out where bears — or moose — could get at them.
“Even the bird feeders — if you put out standing water for birds right now, that’s going to do them a lot of good and you’ll still probably attract some birds. Maybe not as many as you would with feeders but you don’t want to be attracting moose or bears with your feeder, either,” Selinger said.
Fish and Game fielded less nuisance bear calls on the Kenai this year than in several previous, which Selinger chalks up to expanded bear-hunting opportunities passed by the Board of Game in 2012.
“We killed a heck of a lot of them with the hunt. As a result of that our report of issues of bears was down,” he said.
But now is not the time for a sense of false security.
“People still need to be really careful,” Selinger said.
All creatures, great and small, are affected in some way by a departure from the usual patterns of weather and conditions to which they are accustomed. On the small end, voles, mice and other burrowing critters are threatened by the lack of snow.
“One of the things the snowpack does is it provides a layer of insulation, so things like the mice and voles, as long as it stays warm it’s not much of an issue, but if gets cold and there’s not that insulative layer, they have a harder time thermoregulating and keeping warm. So that snow layer helps protect the ground from the freeze going too deep,” Selinger said.
A little higher up on the small end of the spectrum, snowshoe hares and ptarmigan, animals that camouflage by turning white for the winter, are easy pickings for predators without snow this time of year. Their color change is tied to diminishing sunlight, so they begin to change whether there’s snow with which to blend in or not.
“They likely would be more susceptible to predation because they’re sticking out a lot better than they would. That’s one of reasons they do camouflage in the winter, so they’re not so conspicuous.”
Plants can suffer, too, if cold precedes snow in the winter, and so would the animals that eat those plants in the spring in summer.
Animals of the human variety have mixed feelings about the delay of regularly scheduled winter. Some would just as soon avoid the heavy coats and snow shovels as long as possible. Others want to see white, and they want to see it now.
Selinger is of the latter variety, as the lack of snow cover is preventing Fish and Game from conducting the aerial wildife surveys scheduled for this time of year.
“With the lack of snow we’re unable to get our moose and wolf surveys in. We’re usually doing them right now. It we’re lucky we try to finish by Thanksgiving, and usually we’re done by the first week of December,” he said
Fish and Game has three pilots at the ready, with the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge chipping in another, but without snow on the ground, it’s infeasible to get a good look at the animals, even from the air.
“Moose are pretty hard to see when there’s no snow, even if the leaves are off the trees. … They’re pretty good at blending in, and the shadows are another big thing this time of year. If they’re in the shadows they’re really hard to see if it’s a bright day, so what we want is a nice, solid, white background. And you still miss moose, even when you’ve got good conditions,” Selinger said.
The clock is ticking. The continually waning light makes it difficult to conduct surveys in December, and bull moose will soon drop their antlers, making it impossible for surveyors to denote male from female to conduct composition counts.
“It’s not uncommon to have to wait until spring to get the census count in, but we have been lucky to get composition counts in the fall in most years,” he said.
This year, Fish and Game plans to do a moose census in Unit 15B, composition counts in 15A and 15C, a wolf census in 15A, B and C, and counts in Unit 7, as well, if conditions allow.
“All those require snow and we want several inches, a total white background, if possible. And we have to have a window where the weather cooperates so we can get out there and do it,” he said. “We’re running out of light.”