Now in its fifth year (and counting), the Alaska Bear Project continues to build momentum. Working in collaboration with Professor Tom Quinn from the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, Professor Aaron Wirsing just returned from Bristol Bay, Alaska, where researchers have been non-invasively studying brown bears hunting along six sockeye salmon spawning streams since 2012. Thus far, they’ve collected more than 2,000 hair samples for genetic analysis using barbed wires strung across the streams, and detected 121 individual bears.
Professor Aaron Wirsing, left, and Professor Tom Quinn on the tundra near one of their bear wires on Whitefish Creek.
This year, for the first time, they’ve also been collecting video using motion-activated trail cameras deployed in conjunction with the wires, and elsewhere, on each stream. They’ll be analyzing the videos to explore bear behavioral responses to the wires (e.g., do they learn to avoid them?), and to track the timing and location of different bear behaviors, including foraging and traveling. Working with Anne Hilborn, a doctoral student in Professor Marcella Kelly’s lab at Virginia Tech, they’re also using the videos as a means to better communicate their work and findings to the public.
Below, check out one of their videos from this summer, which provides a great example of the type of footage they’re collecting: a brown bear mother passing by with two cubs!
The program involves a number of partners, including the Bristol Bay Native Association (BBNA), a consortium of 31 tribes whose mission includes providing educational opportunities to the native people of the Bristol Bay region. Each summer, BBNA research interns contribute to the Alaska Salmon Program, and this year Nadezdha Wolcott (below left) and Malcolm Upton assisted with hair sample collection as part of the noninvasive genetic component of the research.
“The bears were really active this year, the fourth of our study,” says Professor Wirsing, who recently returned from a field trip to Alaska. “So we really appreciated the interns’ help in collecting all of the hairs snagged on our barbed wires!”
Earlier this week, Professor David Butman returned from spending 11 days in the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, where he had the memorable opportunity to conduct his field sampling by helicopter and float plane. He was able to coordinate the trip on a shoestring budget, as well, thanks to a great partnership with NASA and colleagues at the University of North Carolina, the U.S. Geological Survey, and Civil & Environmental Engineering at the University of Washington (where Butman holds a joint appointment).
Pavelsky has been helping with field calibration for a new radar sensor that NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is planning to launch on a satellite in 2020. Through its Surface Water and Ocean Topography, or SWOT, mission, NASA is developing this sensor to observe changes in water level to within a millimeter of accuracy, which will have important applications for measuring water volume in lakes and rivers, as well as impacts of flooding.
Daylight extended until nearly midnight, giving them incredibly long days to collect samples. “You lose track of time,” says Butman (taking a “sampling selfie” here).
Right now, they’re in the middle of an intense campaign to calibrate the radar sensor and test it by flying over different landforms and water features. So when Butman learned from Pavelsky that some of those test sites would include the Yukon Flats, he pitched the idea of tagging along to conduct his own biogeochemistry measurements at the same time. He had already marked some of those same areas for future sampling, and the timing was perfect to draw different programs together for common goals. NASA agreed to bring him along, and they ended up covering the expense of the helicopter and plane flights in Alaska, and Butman handled the equipment and labor.
He seized the opportunity and spent 16 to 17 hours in the field on the trip. Butman flew around with a pilot and a student technician to assist him, locating lakes from the air and heading down to take measurements. Assisted by Alaska’s endless summer sunshine, they were able to collect tons of data from 18 different lakes. “It was kind of exciting,” he says. “Some of these systems have never been measured.”
Butman has another proposal in with NASA to fund continued research in the Yukon area, and he definitely hopes to get back up there next year. “It was one of my top three field experiences so far, for sure.”
Every year,hundreds of millions of salmon swim from the Pacific Ocean into streams and rivers up and down the West Coast from California to Alaska. They make their way, with remarkable precision and determination, to spawn in the very grounds where they were born. “It’s one of, if not the grandest migrations in the whole world,” says Professor Aaron Wirsing, who recently returned from two weeks at the Fisheries Research Institute in the village of Aleknagik, Alaska.
This summer, the total number of salmon in Hansen Creek is already double previous counts.
This field season, while the researchers haven’t seen as many bears, they are witnessing a record salmon run that continues to pour into the system. The latest count for just one of the streams, Hansen Creek, is already more than 50,000 salmon—which is more than double the previous record for the whole summer. Picture those fish, some 20,000 at a time, packed into a two-kilometer stretch of water only four meters wide and barely five centimeters deep. That’s a lot of fins in the water, and it makes for an unforgettable sight. “It’s like salmon soup,” says Professor Wirsing.
Before the salmon embark on that last leg to the spawning ground, they often pool at the entry point to the creek and wait days, even weeks, before venturing into the current. Why they pause at the creek mouth, and what triggers the last desperate dash, isn’t entirely clear, though it’s thought to be partly a response to predation risk, with the salmon entering in huge waves to overwhelm their predators—in this case, brown bears. The presence of fish in the creek, with silt kicked up by spawning salmon upstream, might also be a cue for others to follow.
In the best of years, salmon causalities are still fairly high as they near the end of this journey (and all Pacific salmon perish after spawning). Some lack the energy to make the final surge up the stream, or they get stranded in the shallows, sometimes just feet from their destination; others get snapped up by bears, or they provide a gruesome feast for birds that peck away at the half-exposed fish. This year, as well, the salmon are facing extreme low water levels. In many spots, the sockeye barely have a few centimeters to buoy them up the stream, and they have to muster an even more heroic effort to splash their way to the finish.
In many places, the salmon have to make their way through only a few centimeters of water.
It’s too early to know precisely what has fueled this record salmon run, says Wirsing, but it could be linked to favorable oceanic conditions (e.g. lots of food at sea). One clear consequence of the high numbers, though, is higher pre-spawning mortality, due both to stranding and to low dissolved oxygen levels in the crowded streams. These salmon will also bring a huge pulse of marine-derived nutrients, which will bolster freshwater invertebrate and bear populations, and even make their way into riparian plants. One other longer-term effect, too, is that there should be another large run in four years when the offspring of these salmon have matured—provided, of course, that enough fish this year are able to spawn and oceanic conditions are again favorable.
Words and photos can’t fully capture the intensity of the annual run, but luckily Professor Wirsing got some great video (below) of the salmon scrum at the entrance to Hansen Creek. It’s like marathoners jockeying for position before the start of a race!
A few weeks ago, we heard from two of our recent graduate students, John Simeone and Erika Knight, who each earned a master’s from the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS) this past year. They actually met and started dating while undergraduates at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.—they’re now engaged—and this past September they loaded their Volkswagen, hitched up a small U-Haul trailer and set out on the 2,400-mile drive to try life in Anchorage, Alaska!
Knight and Simeone on a hike up to Flattop Mountain, about a 20-minute drive from their apartment in Anchorage.
Simeone grew up outside of New York City, and Knight is originally from New Hampshire, so Alaska would open a totally new frontier for them. And since they weren’t in a hurry, they decided to soak up the scenery on the way, including making a couple memorable stops at the Liard Hotsprings in northern British Columbia, and then the Kluane Lake area in the Yukon. They ended up taking almost six days to complete the journey before pulling into their driveway in Anchorage on October 3 (some make the drive in three days, says Simeone, but what’s the fun in that?!).
Since then, they’ve been reveling in the outdoor offerings in and around Anchorage, finding great hiking and ski trails within minutes of their apartment. “The autumn seems to have sped by quickly,” he says, “and by early November the snow started flying, which we were very glad of since we were excited to get out on the extensive cross-country ski trail networks in town—not to mention getting out into the mountains to backcountry ski!”
As snow and ski lovers, Knight and Simeone have moved to the right place!
The only downside is that as the snow gets heavier, the days keep getting shorter. “The darkness is certainly hard,” says Simeone, “but the abundance of snow makes up for it! For instance, as I write this email at 10 a.m., it is basically pre-dawn light right now. But the days are already starting to get longer!”
Gobbling up some of those precious daytime hours, of course, are their jobs. Knight has been working for a consulting firm as a full-time environmental scientist, and Simeone has been piecing together some part-time contract consulting work from places as far reaching as Washington, D.C, and Russia. As he continues looking for a full-time position, he has a new contract starting that will involve working on Russia-Alaska king crab trade issues for the World Wildlife Fund’s arctic office.
The real fun, though, has been exploring their new city and state, and they’re just getting started. If you’d like to get a peek at their Alaskan adventure so far, Simeone and Knight shared some of the photos they took during their spectacular drive and first autumn in Anchorage. We put a selection of them in a gallery below, so check it out!
But for all the iconic footage of salmon runs, this annual rite of passage and predation has gone largely unstudied from the point of view of individual bears—especially outside of easily observable areas.
The challenge is that observations of bears are generally too few and too close to reveal natural feeding behavior, so most of what we know about the bear-salmon relationship comes from fish carcass surveys: We see what’s been eaten, but not always who did the eating, or how often or where or when. That leaves a lot of unknowns, including how many bears hunt along salmon spawning-streams, and whether bears return to the same stream year after year.
To answer these questions and others, two units in the College of the Environment—the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences (SAFS) and the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS)—have launched a coordinated research project.
Professors Aaron Wirsing, left, and Tom Quinn. Since 1993, Quinn’s research has explored a number of dimensions of the salmon-bear relationship, including the effects of stream characteristics on bear predation rate, size selectivity, density dependence, evolutionary consequences and links to nutrient cycling.
Led by SAFS Professor Tom Quinn and SEFS Professor Aaron Wirsing, this new study is investigating coastal brown bear (Ursus arctos) abundance and behavior along sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) spawning streams in Bristol Bay, Alaska. Their project draws from decades of existing salmon research and introduces a completely new perspective by exploring individual brown bear behavior, including monitoring bears through remote cameras and collecting hair samples for DNA analysis.
The research team is housed at the Fisheries Research Institute, a program within SAFS, and based in the village of Aleknagik. In addition to Professors Quinn and Wirsing, the crew includes SAFS graduate student Curry Cunningham and Professor Lisette Waits from the University of Idaho.
Their work began in 2010 by placing the first cameras along salmon-spawning streams in the Wood River Lakes System. In July 2012, they then deployed barbed wire across three streams to begin snagging tufts of hair from foraging bears. This past summer, they expanded the research area and deployed two barbed wires each on six streams. One wire per stream is paired with a remote camera trap to document what happens when bears encounter the wires. The wires are set just high enough—55-60 centimeters—for bears to step gingerly over them, often leaving small tufts of hair behind (when good samples are collected, they call it a “good hair day”). The hairs, in turn, yield DNA samples that help researchers identify individual bears.
A tuft of brown bear hair snagged on a wire.
The study is designed to be noninvasive, so among the questions to answer was whether the wires would impact or otherwise disrupt bear behavior and hunting. Judging from the camera images so far—including many taken at night (see slideshow below)—the bears appear largely unconcerned with the wires, often stepping over and under multiple times in a single encounter (in the process, of course, leaving collectible tufts of hair).
In the first year of hair sampling last summer, the team collected 74 tufts from wires along Bear, Happy, and Hansen creeks. They have analyzed 41 of the samples so far and have successfully identified 15 different individuals—eleven females, four males, and all brown bears.
Field work is just winding down for this summer (at left, check out a slideshow of photos Professor Wirsing took a few weeks ago). They plan to continue the project for a few more years, and as researchers sort through several hundred new samples to analyze, they’re excited to open this window into a largely unseen and unstudied realm of bear behavior.
“Outside of a few highly visible areas, such as the McNeil River, the behavior of brown bears foraging on salmon has been largely shrouded in mystery,” says Wirsing. “We hope our work will reveal how feeding and social behavior of individual bears are shaped by the arrival of migrating salmon—and by extension how coastal brown bear populations might be affected by changes to the size and timing of salmon runs.”
*** Super Salmon In the short video clip below, Professor Wirsing captures sockeye salmon swimming up Hansen Creek, which in some places is only a couple inches deep as it approaches Lake Aleknagik. You’ll get a glimpse—a tiny glimpse, mind you—of the herculean effort it takes for salmon to reach their spawning grounds. Their exertion is nothing short of heroic during this brutal slog. After all, even when they manage to dodge the maw of a hungry grizzly, they still have to muscle their way through narrow, shallow streams to reach their final destinations. In some cases, a few of the larger males get too fatigued to maneuver through the shallowest sections and end up stranded. Those beached souls then sometimes have to suffer through gulls pecking their eyes out as a final insult. No question, it’s an unforgiving business.