Alaska’s Bears: How the understanding of human-bear interactions has changed

Alaska’s bears haven’t changed in the last two decades, but scientific understanding of them has. Back country enthusiast and writer Bill Sherwonit has released an updated version of his book Alaska’s Bears. Sherwonit told APRN’s Lori Townsend that a better understanding of the impacts of climate change, especially for polar bears is a big part of the update.

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09152016_alaskas-bears_bookSHERWONIT: “It really is worrisome from the perspective of polar bears as to how badly affected they’re gonna be remains a question, but there’s no question they face huge challenges.

TOWNSEND: What does the science say? What’s known about how adaptable they are if they have to start spending more time on land as opposed to sea ice? Is it hopeful they could do that and maybe learn to be more land-based terrestrial bears instead of ice-based bears?

SHERWONIT: Most species adapt over long periods of time. The window here is looking like it could be pretty small. And a lot does depend on whether the so-called greenhouse gases and stuff in the atmosphere are stabilized at some point, begin to decrease, or continue to grow. So there is a lot that isn’t known. There is evidence that more and more polar bears are spending more time on land but again their primary source of food is an ocean animal. So, will they, as a species, be able to somehow adapt to just a completely different food regiment? It’s a huge question. It’s like that’s a major change.

TOWNSEND: What do scientists know now about human-bear interactions that maybe has changed in that 20-year window? Or has it changed?

SHERWONIT: I think when things are done right, there’s a general understanding that bears are less dangerous than most people perceive them to be. There’s plenty of evidence, and more and more evidence, that if people really do follow “Bear Aware” rules that the possibility of being harmed is really small. Almost all bear attacks, a great majority of bear attacks, occur when a bear when a bear is surprised at close quarters. And then the bears have to make a snap decision just like the humans do. And really there are only two choices: One is to retreat, which most bears do. The other is to get rid of the threat, and so the best way for a bear to get rid of the threat is to attack. But I think the growing body of evidence that contradicts the bears as the simplistic notion of bears as these dangerous bloodthirsty critters, I think, is just substantially more now.

TOWNSEND: Are you saying that the more that’s known about bear behavior is that, the overwhelming sentiment is that, if they can avoid human interactions, that’s actually their preference as well as ours?

SHERWONIT: Yeah, even the historical evidence has suggested that, you know bears and humans co-evolved right, but there’s no evidence that I know of that bears ever treated people as prey. It was more like they were competitors.

Bill Sherwonit’s updated edition of Alaska’s Bears is available now.

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Lori Townsend is the News Director for Alaska Public Media. She has worked in print and broadcast journalism for nearly 30 years. Radio brought her to Alaska, where she worked as a broadcast trainer for Native fellowship students at Koahnic Broadcasting before accepting a reporting/host position with APRN in 2003. APRN merged with Alaska Public Media a year later. Through her freelance work, she has produced news and feature stories nationally and internationally for Independent Native News, National Native News, NPR , Pacifica, Monitor Radio, Radio Netherlands and AIROS. Townsend is the recipient of numerous awards for her work from the Alaska Press Club, the Native American Journalists Association and a gold and a silver reel award from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters.