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GPS collar to tell story of Starrigavan bear

A young male brown bear recovers after being tranquilized and collared in Starrigavan Bay last weekend. (ADF&G photo/Phil Mooney)

A young male brown bear recovers after being tranquilized and collared in Starrigavan Bay last weekend. (ADF&G photo/Phil Mooney)

The Alaska Department of Fish & Game has darted and tagged a brown bear frequenting the end of the Sitka road system, in the hope of learning whether it’s the same animal that killed and ate a dog in the area earlier in the week.

ADF&G biologist Phil Mooney tranquilized the bear last Friday evening (5-17-14) on the beach in Starrigavan Bay.

 

It was about 9 in the evening, and Mooney says a crowd had parked on the Starrigavan bridge to watch the bear, a young male about 4 years old. Fish & Wildlife troopers and Forest Service law enforcement helped manage people as Mooney got into position. It turns out that all the commotion was a useful distraction.

“I had looked at it twice earlier in the week and couldn’t get close to it. So we set up and they stayed back and I walked out around the corner and was able to sneak behind it, to the point I could sit down and my scent was blowing out toward the bay. And really what happened was that there was enough noise on the bridge — even though it was a good quarter- to three-quarters of a mile away — he was kind of irritated with someone who was playing a boom box, and you could hear the base thumping, and it kind of walked away from that and into me, and I darted it.”

Mooney says it was a textbook shot. The dart plunges 4 cc’s of tranquilizer into the bear. It takes about ten minutes to work.

“The dart hit it in the top of the shoulder, and it didn’t really even acknowledge it — didn’t try to pull it out or anything. I just held my position, and it walked right by me and started to graze again. It maybe walked 30 meters and tipped over.”

Mooney installed a $4,000 collar on the bear and attached a red tag to its ear. The collar uses global positioning technology to record the bear’s location three times and hour, until it drops off on August 20, 2015. Mooney and the law enforcement officers also measured the bear and took a tooth.

The collar also has a vhf transmitter that allows Mooney to locate the bear in real time. So far, the animal has remained in the Starrigavan area, sometimes crossing the creek and going up the southern end of the valley.

Mooney says the bear is about the same age as an animal darted and relocated to Kruzof Island two years ago in October. Data from that collar shattered conventional wisdom about the range of bears.

“He’s the one that went to Pelican. And crossed back and forth between Baranof and Chichagof seven times in seven months. A classic example that doesn’t match much of the existing bear data we’ve got on Baranof — especially from the north end to the south end. So that was kind of an eye opener, and proved what we already expected: We do get interchange between Baranof and Chichagof at times. And a male that has not found and established a home range yet is going to move around.”

Mooney thinks it likely that the Starrigavan bear grew up in the valley, and could be displaced if a larger sow with cubs decides to take up residence in the tide flats. So it will be interesting to see where it winds up — if it survives the summer.

Since a bear killed and ate a dog nearby on May 12, residents have become edgier. A resident fired three rounds from a handgun at the culprit in his driveway that same evening. Earlier in the month, a bear was shot and killed on Granite Creek Road.

Mooney doesn’t deny that any individual bear might exhibit behaviors outside of the norm for interaction with humans and dogs, but more often than not he thinks Sitka’s bears are not aggressive.

“We really don’t see a lot of that behavior from the bears around here. The bulk of them have been raised around here, and they’re familiar with people and the noise of people, and the actions of people, and that’s why they’re so good at targeting our garbage. They know the drill.”

The bear Mooney tagged over the weekend did not show signs of gunshot wounds. We may not know exactly where this bear is going until the collar drops off next summer and Mooney can retrieve the data.

It took about four hours for the tranquilizer to wear off. Mooney waited with the bear until 2:45 AM, when it was back on its feet. He considers it a teaching moment.

“While he’s coming out of the drug, I’m essentially giving him verbal hazing. I wanted him to hear the same things he’s going to hear when he’s fully awake, like Hey Bear!, Get Outta Here Bear!, and shine the light in his face. So he comes to associate that with a not-particularly-good time of being captured and collared.”

As strange as it sounds, Mooney says it’s ultimately better to keep these bears who know us around town. “He’s a known quantity, his behavior’s a known quantity,” he says. “If we kill him off, you’ll have a newbie come in.”

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