Zookeeper Steve Burns Visits Home of Kodiak Bears

Steve and Laura Burns on Kodiak Island

Marshfield Group with Burns Travels to Homeland of Wildwood Zoo’s Munsey and Boda

Munsey and Boda, Marshfield’s two Kodiak Bears, joined Wildwood Zoo in October 2015 after a rough five months of rehabilitation. The cubs had been found nearly dead in a den in the Alaska wilderness, their mother having been illegally shot by an unguided hunter. After discovering their situation, the hunting party led by Harry Dodge contacted the Alaska Department of Fish & Game and was authorized to rescue the cubs.

Munsey & Boda at Wildwood Zoo

Exhausted and frightened, the bears stayed with the Dodge party overnight and then were accompanied by biologist Nate Svoboda to the Alaska Zoo, where they were nursed back to health. After their recovery, they found a permanent home in the new Kodiak Bear Exhibit in Marshfield, under the care of Zookeeper Steve Burns.

Last month, Burns traveled to Kodiak Island, Alaska, to see in-person the location where the bears were discovered.

Along with wife Laura, Parks and Recreation Supervisor Ben Steinbach, Greg Steinbach, Juline Heiting, and Chuck Heiting, Burns visited and stayed with Svoboda while in Kodiak (city), and Harry and Brigid Dodge while in Kodiak backcountry.

Along with Kodiak Island, the group also explored Anchorage and Kenai Fjords National Park.

“The trip to Kodiak was a personal vacation for all the members of our group,” said Burns. “We travelled to Kodiak to get a better understanding and appreciation for the land, wildlife and culture of the home of our Kodiak Cubs.”

Brigid Dodge, Loyal the dog, Harry Dodge, Chuck Heiting, Ben Steinbach, Juline, Steve Burns, Greg Steinbach, Laura Burns

Shortly after the bears’ arrival in Marshfield, the Dodge’s and hunter Brandon Stokes, traveled to Marshfield to check on the bears. During that visit, he invited Burns to come explore Alaska and Burns was eager to take him up on the offer.

“The bears were the catalyst for this entire adventure,” said Burns. “When the Dodge’s,

Brandon Stokes, and the rest of the rescue team intervened to save the Kodiak Cubs, Marshfield and Kodiak were forever bound by the story of these bears.”

Burns sees that relationship continuing, as the bears are important to both parties. Because so few bears leave Kodiak Island, Wildwood’s Munsey and Boda are truly ambassadors for their species and for the overall balance of humans and nature.

“It is interesting to me how the investment of human energy and emotion can elevate the ‘value’ of a life,” said Burns. “Bears (or any living thing for that matter) live or die every day quite anonymously. It was only through the efforts of the Dodge’s and their hunting party that the story of the cubs began.”

Munsey’s Bear Camp, Amook Pass, Kodiak.

With significant respect for the Dodge’s and their passion for Kodiak Bears, Burns was thankful for the chance to experience the island with them and learn more about their efforts.

“The trip was an opportunity to reconnect with some of the ‘heroes’ of the story,” said Burns. “For my wife and I, a trip to Alaska was a ‘bucket list’ item. The opportunity to be hosted by Nate and the Dodge’s was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience authentic Kodiak through the eyes of some of its most legendary (human) residents.”

Describing it as a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience, Burns also appreciated the Kodiak Treks bear viewing experience because of its educational message of responsible stewardship.

Kodiak Trek boat

“It was just so amazing for me to better understand the big picture story of Kodiak Island, its people and its bears. It was so cool to see how the people of Kodiak embrace their bears and wildlife in general,” he said. “It is refreshing to see a way of life so in tune with nature. The Dodge’s and Nate are such excellent stewards of the Kodiak ecosystem. It was inspiring for me to experience Kodiak through them.”

Burns shared one favorite memory of a bear encounter while hiking in the Kodiak Wildlife Refuge.

“Our group came upon a Kodiak sow with at least one cub feeding near the convergence of a river and tidal flat. We were about 30 yards away from the legendary Kodiak Bear!” said Burns. “Under the supervision of expert guides like Harry and Brigid, what might normally have been a terrifying experience was really just amazing. This close encounter helped dispel the popular belief that bears are aggressive violent killers. Given the choice they would much rather avoid humans altogether.”

Kodiak Bear

He added that viewing bears on a Kodiak Trek provided the opportunity to view bears uninfluenced by humans.

“Viewing bears in the Kodiak Wilderness gave me the feeling of watching a world that doesn’t know (or even care) that I exist. It’s a very humbling experience,” he said.

While on the trek, the Dodge’s base camp was near the mountain den site where Munsey and Boda were found.

“Kodiak is truly a bear’s paradise. Though the Kodiak experience our bears had is basically just the inside of a den, I now better understand the life they were born to live,” he said. “The Kodiak bear seems to me a species perfectly adapted to every aspect of its natural environment. Having played a role in their journey to Marshfield, I feel an obligation to be a surrogate of the Kodiak ecosystem or somehow deliver the experience of living on Kodiak to our bears.”

Burns said that this understanding makes him want to work even harder to provide Munsey and Boda the best possible life here in Marshfield.

“These bears are truly stewards for their species. It is our job to make the most of the opportunity for education these bears have given us,” he said. “Simply by defying the odds and surviving through the trauma of being orphaned, these bears have forged an unbreakable bond between Marshfield, WI and Kodiak Island Alaska-truly one of the World’s last great places.”

The group hiking on Kodiak Island.

Burns is excited to see Kodiak bears thriving on the Kodiak Archipelago, and credits the hard work and assistance of environmentalists for their success in the modern world.

“To see a population of apex predators coexisting with humans is increasingly rare in modern times,” he said. “ The success of their management is due largely because of people like the Dodges, Nate Svoboda, and responsible and ethical hunters like Brandon Stokes who gave up his hunt to rescue our cubs.”

He added that hunting and fishing license fees and associated purchases like tackle and firearms are taxed, with those dollars supporting important regulatory agencies like the Alaska Fish and Game Department for management of natural resources.

“Hunters and fishermen contribute more money towards conservation of wildlife than any other group. As of now the growing business of ecotourism is not structured in a way that gives back like hunting and fishing do,” said Burns. “The Dodge’s support structuring ecotourism in a way that changes that.”

For those looking to contribute to Kodiak Bear conservation and management, Harry and Brigid Dodge recommend donating to the Kodiak Brown Bear Trust.

Kodiak Bears

“The Trust is an extremely lean and efficient organization; their four member board are all volunteers- money donated to them goes straight to the cause,” said Burns.

Learn more about the Kodiak Brown Bear Trust: http://www.kodiakbrownbeartrust.org/support.aspx

News Desk
Author: News Desk