Kodiak Island sits in the Gulf of Alaska 250 miles southwest of Anchorage. The island is 3,588 square miles in area, making it the second largest island in the United States. Kodiak and its numerous neighboring islands comprise the Kodiak Archipelago. The city of Kodiak is located at the northeastern tip of Kodiak Island, and most of the 13,500 residents of the island live in or near the city. Much of the rest of the island is part of the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. This rich, natural wilderness is home to a variety of native and introduced mammals.
Kodiak only has six endemic mammals. These are the Kodiak brown bear, the red fox, the river otter, the short-tailed weasel, the little brown bat, and the tundra vole. Of these six species, the Kodiak brown bear is, by far, the most famous. More than 3,500 brown bears live on the Kodiak Archipelago.
Kodiak bears grow larger than other brown bears due to the abundant buffet of food available on the island. In the summer, they dine on salmon and berries. In the late summer and fall, before a bear enters his den for hibernation, he consumes as many as 20,000 calories per day from eating berries loaded with sugar. Berries, plus protein-rich salmon prepare him for several months of eating nothing while he hibernates.
A sow gives birth to between one and four cubs during hibernation, a feat which draws heavily on her energy reserves. Although she is impregnated in the spring, the embryo does not implant on the uterine wall until after she goes into hibernation. If she has not stored enough fat reserves to sustain her through her pregnancy in hibernation, the embryo will not implant in her uterus.
A bear cub embryo only develops for two-and-one-half months before the sow gives birth. No other mammals except marsupials have such immature offspring at birth. The cubs weigh one pound (.5 kg) and are blind, deaf, and unable to smell. Only a fine fur covers their bodies, and they are toothless, weak, and uncoordinated. Luckily, they develop quickly. Cubs stay with their mother until they are three-years-old. An average adult female Kodiak bear weighs between 350 and 500 lbs. (159 -227 kg). Adult males average between 500 to 1000 lbs. (227-454 kg), and a very large boar might weigh as much as 1500 lbs. (340 kg).
The most abundant introduced wild mammals on Kodiak Island are Sitka black-tailed deer and mountain goats. Twenty-five deer were introduced to the north end of Kodiak Island between 1924 and 1935, and they have since spread to most areas of the archipelago. Despite a limited gene pool, the deer population appears to be healthy. The number of deer fluctuates depending on the harshness of the winter. During a cold, snowy winter, half the population or more will die, but they flourish during mild winters. Biologists estimate nearly 70,000 Sitka black-tailed deer call Kodiak home.
Eleven female and seven male goats were transplanted from the Kenai Peninsula to Kodiak Island in 1952. Twenty years later, biologists counted 100 goats on the island. In a 2013 survey, scientists estimated the goat population had exploded to 2,500 animals. Goats now occupy every suitable habitat on Kodiak, and biologists worry there are too many goats for the alpine habitat to sustain.
Kodiak is a mountainous island with deep, fjord-like bays populated by small islands and rocks that provide ample protection and haul-outs for marine mammals. In addition to this unique geography, the Alaska Current, an offshoot of the warm Japanese Kuroshio Current, flows northward near Kodiak, bringing warmer water and nutrients to the frigid Gulf of Alaska. These nutrients provide a rich food supply for fish, invertebrates, and marine mammals.
King crab, Tanner crab, and Dungeness crab are all found near Kodiak, and huge Pacific halibut, rockfish, lingcod, and grey cod are just a few of the marine fish species living and feeding near the island. Five species of Pacific salmon return to Kodiak each summer to spawn in the numerous rivers and streams here, and the beaches teem with clams, mussels, sea stars, and other invertebrates.
Harbor seals and huge Steller sea lions, weighing as much as 2500 lbs. (1120 kg), haul out on the rocks and small islands near Kodiak. The Northern sea otter, once nearly hunted to the point of extinction for its luxurious fur, has rebounded, and sea otters are abundant here.
Whales are always a special site. Fin whales, the second-largest whales, commonly are seen in the summer months and even during the winter in the deep island bays. Seis, humpbacks, and Minkes all come to Kodiak to feed. Gray whales can be seen in April and May from the bluffs on the outside perimeter of the island as they migrate to their northern feeding grounds in the Bering, Chuckchi, and Beaufort Seas, and Orcas also often are seen in Kodiak waters.
Due to its mild maritime climate in the winter, a wide variety of habitats, and a plentiful food supply, the Kodiak Archipelago is home to more species and numbers of birds than anywhere else in Alaska. Over a million sea ducks and other aquatic migratory birds flock to Kodiak in the winter. In the spring, Arctic terns arrive from as far away as Antarctica, and bank swallows return from South America. Horned and tufted puffins fly from their winter home on the deep North Pacific Ocean to nest on the rocky cliffs of the archipelago. The bald eagle is Kodiak’s most noticeable bird, and with 600 nesting pairs on the archipelago, biologists believe the nesting real estate here is saturated.
When I walk into my front yard, I see sea otters floating placidly in the cove, eagles circling overhead, deer, and foxes on the beach, and if I’m lucky, I hear the shotgun blast of a whale exhaling nearby. Kodiak is a wildlife lover’s paradise.
Robin Barefield is an Alaskan wilderness mystery writer. She has a master’s degree in fish and wildlife biology and is also a wildlife-viewing and fishing guide. She lives on Kodiak Island in Alaska where she and her husband, Mike Munsey, own a remote lodge.