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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Bears and Archaeological Sites

Immediately after landing at Karluk Lake we saw a bear close by watching us unload the plane. He seemed unconcerned and wandered down the beach and went for a swim while we watched. Rolan, the float plane pilot quiped, 'that's your friendly neighborhood bear - you'll have no problems with him'. So we joined the neighborhood - a neighborhood with a high quotient of bears. No problem.

We had bears around both of our camps. In our neighborhood bears wandered by camp on a regular basis (see second from bottom photo). We'd dig test pits with bears sleeping 80 meters away. But as long as we followed the neighborhood rules and kept a 60 meter bubble of personal space, the bears tolerated/ignored us. Of course we did not see the really big bears (in the top photo Mark is holding the skull of a really big bear that he found). The big bears stay away from people and the places they frequent. I think the bears we had around camp are used to people coming to the lake to view bears. It got interesting when we tried to push the bears off of an archaeological site so that we could map it. They did not want to move and we had to back off. But I think they got the idea - they departed during the night with their honor intact. We mapped the site the next day.

The bears are destroying the local archaeological sites - they are the number one destructive agent to sites along our interior rivers. I've known this for a while, but on this trip I got to observe a bit more of their behavior and really get a handle about what they are up to. Basically, I think the lush vegetation and prime locations of archaeological sites attracts bears. Old village sites are generally located directly above the best fishing locations, and they are always covered with particularly lush vegetation due to their midden enhanced soil. We observed bears grazing greens on the sites and digging for forbs (see bottom photo). We also observed bears digging big bear beds in places where they could watch the river while they napped. Big bear trails up the front of sites have also enhanced erosion.

I have decided that bears damage sites in one of three ways. First there are the small holes and digs on the tops of sites. These are created by bears digging for food or just out of simple curiosity. Second there are the huge holes along the front edge of sites along the river or in other prime viewing locations. These holes are creating the most damage and on some of the sites the bears have literally obliterated all of the old housepit depressions. Finally bear trails and activity along the fronts of sites enhances erosion. I watched a bear run up the front of a site with a rooster tail of dirt falling down the slope behind him. It is worth noting that older sites that were once covered with lush vegetation a couple of hundred years ago do not exhibit old bear damage. I wonder if there were fewer bears back then or if the huge villages of people on the big rivers simply kept them away. Patrick

Note: we did have an electric fence up around our camp (you can see it if you look carefully in Mark Rusk's photo of Aubrey taking a photo of a bear). Also, we kept an immaculately clean camp. No leftovers and trash kept to a minimum. No bears even tested our fence.


kodiakgriff said...

Interesting dilemma; archeological sites being damaged by natural activities of our local omnivores.
I think you are correct in assuming that when the village sites were active they created a natural "no bear zone".
The big bruins do not like being around humans. The villages were built on productive locations. Once they are gone the next member of the food chain will. naturally, move in.
So no what? Do we drive of the natural order, in order to preserve history or do we reap what historical data we can and leave nature to its course?
I hope that will be the case.
Keep up the good work, I love the pictures!

Zoya, Patrick, Nora and Stuart said...

I think I should mention that the greatest destroyer of sites is the sea. Natural erosion and rising sea levels. But no way I am going to play King Canute and try and stop the tide! Same thing with the bears - it's the natural order of things. I simply observe and record what they are up to.


The Yellow Porcupine said...

dude, lay off the bears! They're everybody's scapegoat.