Homer author to give talk on bears

Homer community resident Derek Stonorov is an Alaska brown bear expert. He started to watch and study the animal as an undergraduate in 1966.

“I was always interested in bears, even as a child,” he told the Homer News in an interview last month.

In his recently published book, “Watch the Bear: A Half Century with the Brown Bears of Alaska,” Stonorov presents decades of observations and field time with brown bears at Lake Becharof and the McNeil River in western Alaska. The book is “memoir, anecdote and science,” he writes in the introduction.

“It’s my story of how I have come to understand bears. It’s based on my research and observations and mine alone.”

The book, which Stonorov will present at Homer Public Library tonight, provides hundreds of pages of description of classic ethology of the animal, social stratification, reproductive behavior and other features typical within the species, as well as the individuality of many specific animals he identified and observed over the years.

Many components of the nonfiction book also inform readers of what Stonorov considers appropriate human interaction when watching brown bears, either from guiding perspective or in interactions with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Though much of the book is composed from memory, “Watch the Bear” also references saved boxes of field notes, details that he kept track of in field camps over the years in notebooks that he went back to looking for details and confirmations.

For example, a note from 1966 included in the book provides simple details of what he witnessed bears doing and when.

“Two bears were observed at 9 p.m. five or six miles below Gas Rocks. They were first seen about a mile away. Both appeared to be the same size. My guess is they were young bears. One was regular brown in color the other much lighter…both seemed compatible, in fact no thought was given that things might be otherwise.”

“The book is a little heavy on research that happened a long time ago, but, it’s based on journals. It’s all in there,” he said. “I kept journals every single day. And my thesis. We also made films every day. It was not too hard to go back and find recollection,” he said.

The research was conducted as scientifically as possible and every journal article he submitted was peer-reviewed. “I knew what I was looking for and trying to find. It was important to do things with a systematic scientific format, so I had that dimension, too,” he said.

Stonorov said his lifelong work with bears began with family memories.

“My mother and grandfather had come up to Alaska in the 1930s and I needed something to write my thesis on as an undergraduate in animal behavior studies,” he said. He decided to do a bear study as a focus because he had already been up to Alaska for other work.

“My family background is really how it all started.”

“They took a train across the country, got on a boat in Seattle, came up to Valdez and ended up in Seward and then you could drive to the end of Kenai Lake. Then, in a river boat to Cooper Landing where they met their guide, the man they hunted with was Andy Simons, primary guide in Alaska at that time. Then they rafted down the Kenai River to Skilak Lake and hunted with horses on Caribou Island,” he said.

“They’d also fly up to Fairbanks and to the Cassiar Mountains, one of the most famous hunting places in North America at that time. You also used to be able to walk from Skilak on a trail to Cooper Landing. It’s all overgrown now, but a lot of people used it back then. This was in approximately 1934,” he said.

This is Stonorov’s first published book. He has also had a couple of papers published and articles with Natural History Magazine. His organized data collection ended in the mid-1970s but has worked for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game since then.

He worked for that Department at the McNeil River before they organized the visitor program there. He worked there to tag bears from 1990 to 2000 as a technician to take visitors out for bear showing; at the same time he observed and documented bear play behavior.

“At the same time, I continued to do research collection on my own there to document play behavior. That’s been my feature of expertise, how bears play together, that’s the secret to understanding them, especially at different ages,” he said.

Stonorov also started private bear viewing in 2001 and did that for almost 20 years and visitor interpretation changed over time. He worked with Ken and Chris Day with Kachemak Air Service and John Rogers on the Waters vessel. All critical for local bear viewing instigation, in the early 1990s.

‘They paved the way for the bear viewing industry that is going on now,” Stonorov said. “It used to be when you went to Hallo Bay, there were just a few people and now there are a hundred, big groups of people. It’s the same way for Moraine Creek. There are constant intakes of tourists,” he said.

The book provides details and observations about bear-human relationship tolerance and habituation from both perspectives.

For example, if people are going to visit a primary food region, the bear is still going to need to feed, so they adjust to the humans watching them.

“Bears have the ability to tolerate each other so they learn how to get along with people. At the same time, we need to respect and treat bears as individuals with different personalities rather than a homogeneous population. Some can tolerate people and some can’t, the same way that they have relationships and identities that differ with each other,” he said.

Stonorov will present the book and some discussion on his work at Homer Public Library on Thursday, March 9 at 6 p.m. Books from the Homer Bookstore will be available to purchase at that time.

Emilie Springer can be reached at emilie.springer@homernews.com.

Brown bear, Ursus arctos, on the Alaska Peninsula in 2021. Photo provided by Derek Stonorov.

Brown bear, Ursus arctos, on the Alaska Peninsula in 2021. Photo provided by Derek Stonorov.