Study Examines Humans' Attitudes of Peninsula Bears

Shaylon Cochran

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     A study looking at people’s attitudes toward bears on the Kenai Peninsula has been released and for the first time, examines what humans think about human-bear interaction.

     Four-hundred-sixty-five Peninsula residents participated in Rebecca Zulueta’s 2011 study of how residents feel about brown and black bear populations here. She contacted residents from Seward to Sterling and beyond and found that, overall, that people have a generally positive view of our ursine neighbors.

     “This is a way to really understand how people perceive brown and black bears on the peninsula. A study of this nature hadn’t been conducted (here) before, and it’s important to understand that better so that we’re not making judgments based on nothing,” Zulueta said.

     In an entry to the Kenai Wildlife Refuge Notebook at the beginning of March, Zulueta wrote that interest in this kind of study comes from a dramatic increase in the number of conflicts between bears since 2000 that have ended in bears killed in defense of life or property, or "DLP." And so the main question was what differences are there in the perceptions of brown and black bears in areas where DLP incidents occurred at a higher rate than other areas.

     Additionally, Zulueta was trying to learn more about the frequency of sitings, the number of conflicts and the types of conflicts.

     “When you take a look at those high DLP communities, we’re actually seeing more risk perception and that’s actually directed towards brown bears in particular and not black bears,” she said.

     The study revealed that 80 percent of participants had a positive attitude toward both populations and that attitude was influenced by their opinion of the bear population and overall experience with bears among other factors.

     Not surprisingly, there’s a correlation between higher DLP incidents and bear attractants. Areas with lots of pets or livestock outside, open trash cans, even beehives drew in more bears. Zulueta went door-to-door to gather the survey information and also conducted a basic visual survey of those areas to get a sense of how many and what kind of attractants were out.

     “That was a way for me to look at whether some people that were experiencing more conflicts, if they did have more attractants on their property.

     She found that 20 percent more of the respondents in high DLP areas also had visible bear attractants compared to respondents in low DLP areas.

     Zulueta conducted her study as part of her graduate degree program through the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she earned her degree in conservation biology and sustainable development and wildlife ecology. She says the study wasn’t conducted to specifically inform management decisions, though she hopes that the information she’s gathered would be considered for such decisions, as it helps identify just how much interaction humans will condone.

     “There is a concept called the 'Social Carrying Capacity.' There comes a point at which the community will no longer tolerate a wildlife population over a certain number. And that’s similar to the carrying capacity for wildlife and habitat as well,” she said.

     Zulueta’s article for the Refuge Notebook was a way to make sure the participants in the study could find out how their input was used.

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