Mammals are less commonly spotted in Sitka National Historical Park than birds and fish, but these fauna still fill a unique niche. The rarity of some terrestrial animals increase the mystique on the park’s totem-lined trails, and the potential to spot a whale or otter from the shore keeps visitors’ eyes on the water. Some more common mammal species inhabiting the park include shrews, moles, red tree squirrels, Sitka blacktail deer, and mink.
Marine mammal species don't live within the park, however many are observed in nearby waters. Steller sea lions, sea otters, harbor seals, Pacific white-sided dolphins, harbor porpoises, Dall's porpoises, and northern elephant seals have been sighted near the park. Nearby whales include orca whales, gray whales, and the endangered humpback whale. In particular, the sea otter is characteristic of Sitka Sound and can be an indicator of environmental health.
Photo from SCS
On Sitka’s Baranof Island and the surrounding island archipelago, biodiversity is characterized by endemic species, meaning organisms unique to a restricted area. Endemism is common on the North Pacific Coast because of its historical isolation, ecological complexity, and narrowness between the ocean and mountain ranges. Many organisms are restricted to certain islands and are more susceptible to endangerment because of their ranges and very specific requirements for habitat.
As human-caused changes occur, these mammals could be threatened with permanent elimination from the only place they call home. Preserved parks are opportunities for endemic species to find sanctuary. Just as Sitka National Historical Park is a treasured place for human visitors, mammals also find refuge amongst the ever-changing world. Some examples of endemic species to Sitka are the Baranof Island ermine, the Sitka root vole, and the Sitka deermouse. All three require varied habitats that are tied to prey abundance.
The Sitka brown bear is also an endemic species: genetic studies suggest a distinctive lineage of brown bears that are restricted to the Admiralty, Baranof and Chichagof (ABC) islands. Interestingly, this particular clade is more closely related to polar bears than to other living bears. During the last ice age, male brown bears dispersed across water from the Alaskan mainland to the ABC islands and hybridized with the polar bears living there. This resulted in the unique, endemic species found near Sitka!
Brown bears occupy the Indian River drainage and occasionally enter the park, often at the beginning of the salmon runs. They are characterized by a hump-like mass of muscle on their shoulders, and their fur color can range from black to tan. These mammals are omnivores, eating berries, shrubs, fish, and small rodents. Like most bears, brown bears will hibernate during winter months and become active in the spring and summer. Aside from a typically solitary lifestyle, mother bears will stay with her cubs for 2 to 3 years (or until they are ready for independence).
Be Bear Aware: Encountering Brown Bear
To avoid encountering a bear, sing or talk aloud to yourself while hiking. The noise will indicate your presence to a bear and prevent a surprise meeting. Carry EPA certified bear spray if you are trained to use it, and hike in groups for increased security. Bears are most active at dawn and dusk, and can be indicated by scat or tracks on the trail. Here are some tips if you are to encounter a brown bear near Sitka National Historical Park:
Did You Know?
The Battle of 1804 marked the beginning of Russian governance in Alaska. All that remains of this last major conflict between Europeans and Alaska Natives is a clearing at the site of the Tlingit fort and battlefield.