As a small company of mountaineers, we are passionate about the Brooks Range Mountains and everything they represent. This week we caught up with Wildlife Biologist, Kyle Joly, to find out more about the grizzlies that call this beautiful range home.
You are a Wildlife Biologist doing incredible research — tell us a little bit more about yourself.
I am employed by for Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve directly but work in all six of the National Park Service’s northern most Park units. These Parks comprise over 22 million acres: about 25% of all NPS lands nationwide or 10 Yellowstones. I first started working in Alaska for the NPS in 1994 and have a PhD in Wildlife Biology. I focus on the ecology of large mammals, especially caribou, moose, bears and Dall’s sheep.
The Brooks Range Mountains are known for their grizzlies. Can you tell us what makes these bears so special?
Brooks Range grizzly bears are the most wild – they live in places that are among the most remote places in the country, generally very far from roads and villages. There is only one road that bisects the Brooks Range (the Dalton Highway which leads to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields) and only a couple of small Alaska Native villages (Anaktuvuk Pass and Arctic Village).
Do you know any interesting factoids about these bears?
Surprisingly little research has been conducted on Brooks Range bears. In 2014, we launched a major research project trying to learn more about the ecology, movements, diets, productivity, survivorship and health of grizzly bears in this region. One thing that may come as a surprise is that the bears are pretty small. Several adult females weighed in the 70 kg (150 lb) range — smaller than many humans.
We estimate there are about 20 adult grizzly bears per 1000 square km (or about 5 adult bears per 100 square miles) – a moderately low-density population. We believe the grizzly bear population is relatively healthy.
What do bears in the area subsist upon?
Grizzly bears are omnivores, they eat most everything including; carrion, roots, grasses, fish, berries, ground squirrels, insects, caribou, moose and more. Fish are much less prevalent in the Brooks Range than in south-central, southeastern and southwestern Alaska, as well as Kodiak, which plays a large role in why the bears here are so much smaller than those in these other areas.
What is the size of the home range for Brooks Range bears?
This is one of the questions we hope to answer with our research. We know home ranges vary dramatically between types of bears. Sows with young cubs can have extremely small home range, on the order of 120 square km (45 sq. mi), which is less than a third of the size of home ranges we’ve found for some moose in the area. The home range of sows without cubs are typically larger and boars having the largest.
What are the common misconceptions about the bear in the area?
As noted above, people typically think of grizzly bears as humongous, but Brooks Range bears are smaller than their coastal cousins. That said, bears can reach over 600 lbs, so they are not all small either. People sometimes think bears have poor vision — but it is thought to be comparable to human sight. It is just inferior to their legendary sense of smell. Bears can run up or down hill and they can run very fast for short distance (65 km/h or 40 mph). They are also excellent swimmers. Most grizzly bear attacks are defensive.
Do you have any infamous bear encounter stories?
We have relatively few encounters because of the combination of relatively low density of bears and relatively few visitors to the region. To my knowledge, there has only been one fatality in Gates of the Arctic NPP from a grizzly, which happened in 1996. Two hikers were out and got separated in thick brush, one of them encounter a grizzly at close range and did not survive. The other got away. In 2008, a woman was dragged from her tent but fellow party members were able to repel the bear.
Are there any tips you have for hikers encountering bear in the backcountry?
Here are a couple of critical ones:
1) Travel in groups of three to eight. Almost all negative bear encounters occur when group size is one or two, so having three or more (if you stick together) greatly reduces your chance of a negative encounter.
2) Be noisy, especially in areas with limited visibility (tall shrubs, cresting a ridge, topography with lots of ups and downs), moving water (it is loud so bears will have a tougher time hearing you), or if the wind is coming towards you (bears will have a tougher time smelling you and your voice doesn’t carry well into the wind).
3) Keep a clean camp. Food and anything smelly like toothpaste should be kept away from the sleeping area and stored in IGBC-approved bear resistant containers (bear barrels).
4) Be prepared. You should have received training in how to act in bear country from a knowledgeable source (the video “Staying Safe in Bear Country” in an excellent primer) so use your training. You should also have a deterrent (EPA-approved bear spray is extremely effective).
5) Enjoy! The overwhelming majority of bear encounters are positive and occur at safe distances (because people follow 1-4), relatively few people get the opportunity for this experience.