State wildlife biologists moving bears away from the McGrath area as part of a highly publicized predator control program are getting repeat customers.
As of Tuesday, six of the 27 bears that biologists have caught were among the 90 bears that biologists also moved last year.
"Based on other projects we've done around the state, we know they have an amazing ability to return to where they came from," said Cathie Harms, spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "We knew there would be a lot that came back but we didn't know how many."
All the bears caught last year received ear tags and tattoos. Biologists also put radio collars on 20 of them. Four collared bears returned to the area around the Interior village. Biologists don't know how many other bears returned.
"This will be the first chance we have to figure out the number (of bears that returned)," Harms said. "We won't get an exact number, but we'll get a better picture."
One of the collared bears that was recaptured had gained more than 100 pounds since last year, Harms said.
"Last year he was 250 pounds and this year he was well over 350," she said.
Using helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, biologists began searching for bears on May 12 and by Tuesday had caught 27, only one of which was a grizzly.
Two bears have died, Harms said. One suffocated when its nose was pressed into the corner of the plane during transport and another died as a result of a "darting complication."
Last year, biologists moved 81 black bears and nine grizzlies from an area that measured 528 square miles surrounding McGrath, where the state is conducting a predator control study in response to complaints from residents that bears and wolves are killing the moose they rely on for food.
The bear removal program is timed to coincide with the spring moose calving season from mid-May to early June. Studies by Fish and Game have proven that bears, not wolves, kill a majority of the moose calves that die each year.
Last year's bear removal helped increase the moose calf survival rate by about 20 percent in the McGrath area, Harms said.
The bear relocation program is part of a controversial predator control program that has landed Alaska in the national spotlight.
Over the winter, the state conducted aerial wolf control programs in two areas, one around McGrath and one in the Nelchina Basin between Fairbanks and Anchorage. Hunters killed 20 wolves in the McGrath area and 127 in the Nelchina Basin before the program was halted on April 30. Both programs are scheduled to begin again in the fall.
Animal-rights groups have protested by taking ads out in newspapers in Alaska and the Lower 48 while at the same time organizing a tourism boycott against the state.
When biologists began the relocation program last year, they expected to remove between 25 and 40 bears but ended up moving more than twice that many. Biologists aren't sure how many bears they will find this year, Harms said. Leaves emerged two weeks earlier this year than they did last spring and spotting bears in the brush is proving much more difficult.
"(Biologists) aren't seeing as many bears as last year," Harms said. "We don't know if that's an indication there aren't as many bears out there or we just can't see them.
"We moved so many last year we didn't know what to expect. We don't know if last year was an average year, a high year or a low year."
Most of the bears are being transported at least 150 miles away to Game Management Unit 20A in the Tanana Flats south of Fairbanks. That area has one of the state's highest moose densities and putting bears there will have the least effect, Harms said.
It costs about $1,000 to catch and move each bear.
Staff writer Tim Mowry can be reached at 459-7587 or firstname.lastname@example.org