This year on the Kenai Peninsula, hunters killed a record 45 brown bears -- five times the average -- under dramatically liberalized state hunting rules, and federal wildlife managers became so concerned they took the unprecedented step of temporarily shutting down the sport hunt on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
Now federal authorities are considering limits on the refuge for next year's Kenai brown bear hunting season, and they are meeting loud opposition from hunters and the state's own game managers. It's a classic Alaska fight that pits the state against the federal government and big game hunters against wildlife watchers.
At the center of the struggle are the Kenai's brown bears, one of Alaska's most iconic predators. They've been growing in number and Kenai residents have been complaining about people-bear conflicts and pushed for more chances to hunt them. But whether the population can sustain intensified hunting is being fiercely debated.
"I don't know anybody that wants the bears gone. But I know lots and lots of people that want the bear numbers managed," says Mike Crawford, a hunter who chairs the Kenai-Soldotna advisory committee to the state Department of Fish and Game. He opposed the federal hunting restrictions.
Only once between 1973 and 2011 did hunters take more than 20 bears in a single year, and that was back in 1993, according to John Morton, supervisory biologist for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, who analyzed Fish and Game numbers.
Fewer than nine bears were killed, on average, annually during that time, he said Friday.
The shift began last year. The Kenai hunt changed from a limited lottery-based system in which few hunters won permits to a general registration hunt in which any licensed hunter had the option to participate. Hunters claimed 32 brown bears in 2012.
This year, the rules were further liberalized. An extended hunting season now starts Sept. 1 and runs through May 31. A hunter can take a Kenai bear every year instead of every four years. Unlike in the past, there was no cap on the total number of bears that could have been killed this year or on the number of adult females, Morton said.
Those changes, he said, are unprecedented in Alaska.
The total number of Kenai brown bears killed this year is 69, more than one out of every 10 on the Peninsula, he said. That counts those hunted legally, hunted illegally, killed in defense of life or property, killed by authorities as nuisance or dangerous bears, and hit by vehicles, he said. An additional 70th bear may also have been killed, he said, though the state has not yet confirmed that.
"So it's an enormous jump in bear take," Morton said.
At that rate, the entire Kenai brown bear population has a 33 percent chance of being wiped out in 25 years, he said. In just a few years the number would drop below 500, which is considered "evolutionary not viable," Morton said.
For the spring 2014 hunt, the Alaska Board of Game is further loosening the rules for Kenai brown bears. It will allow them to be hunted over bear "bait stations" used to lure in black bears, which are far more prevalent and valued by some as a food source.
'TRACKS ON TRACKS'
The first-ever scientific count of Kenai brown bears was done in 2010 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service using DNA testing of hair samples from around the peninsula. That study put the population at 624.
Earlier estimates of 250 to 300 Kenai brown bears were derived from bear counts elsewhere and, while rooted in expert opinion, did not represent a true count of Kenai bears, said Morton, lead author of the 2010 study.
Both sides of the Kenai bear debate say the numbers had been growing before this year's big hunt.
The new federal count now is being used by the state as justification for more bear hunting.
"We don't agree that the number may be exactly right but there were a lot more bears, probably double or triple the number of bears," that the state thought roamed the Kenai, said Doug Vincent-Lang, director of wildlife conservation for the Department of Fish and Game.
In March, at the same time the Board of Game was being briefed on the bear census, it was being pushed by residents to offer more hunting opportunities in part to thin out a population that was causing trouble.
Ted Spraker, Board of Game chairman and a retired Fish and Game biologist, has lived and hunted on the Kenai Peninsula for 35 years.
For the last decade, people have been seeing more bears, he said.
"Bears are common when you are out moose hunting," said Spraker, who was busy Friday morning skinning a lynx a friend had shot. "You walk up a trail in the morning, come back in the afternoon -- there's bear tracks on your tracks."
Two years ago, a Soldotna police officer shot and killed a big brown bear in a residential neighborhood that likely was attracted by the head of a freshly butchered caribou.
Too many Kenai bears are shot in defense of life or property, and more hunting opportunities should reduce those numbers, Spraker said. In defensive kills, the shooter has to surrender the hide to the state for auction, "a total waste of the resource," Crawford of the advisory committee said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service contends many of those defensive kills are preventable. Bears are drawn to urban mini-farms with chickens and livestock that could be protected with an electric fence, Morton said.
While people complain of bears on their porches and wreaking havoc in their yards, and while fishermen now nervously eye bears gathered along the Russian River during sockeye runs, hunting brown bears is a different matter, Spraker said.
"To actually get a bear in your sights and have it legal and close enough where you can make an ethical shot, it's not that easy to do," Spraker said.
Under the new general registration Kenai hunt, a total of 666 permits were issued in 2012 but only 32 hunters got a bear, counting four who used a drawing permit from 2011 and one under a federal subsistence permit, said Jeff Selinger, Kenai area biologist for the state Department of Fish and Game. This year, the state issued 1,258 general hunt permits. Hunters got at least 45 bears, counting two taken under drawing permits, he said.
On Oct. 25, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge manager Andy Loranger announced a 30-day moratorium on sport hunting in the refuge starting the next day.
Fish and Wildlife Service officials believe the closure was the first for sport hunting on a federal refuge in Alaska. Hunting on the Kenai also takes place off the refuge, on state or private land or in the Chugach National Forest.
The refuge of nearly two million acres covers about one-third of the Kenai Peninsula and was first established as a range to protect moose. Most of it is open to hunting and fishing, typically under state rules.
But the federal government can take charge if state management conflicts with its responsibility "to manage all fish and wildlife species on the refuge in their natural diversity" and to balance different uses, including hunting and recreation, Loranger said.
Of particular concern are the deaths this year of 24 adult female bears, half on the refuge and half off of it, because they are critical to maintaining a healthy population, Morton said.
The Board of Game previously had capped the number of adult females killed by humans at between six and 10 a year, he said.
During the closure, a subsistence bear hunt was not halted, which state managers questioned. Loranger said only two brown bears in seven years were taken during the subsistence hunt and they were ready to close it too if they thought it was a problem.
Now with most bears in their dens, the Fish and Wildlife Service is deciding what to do next.
It held two public hearings in November about the closure. One in Anchorage drew a couple dozen people, almost all of whom testified in support of the temporary halt to bear hunting, saying the bears and wild lands should be treasured for all. The one in Soldotna drew a standing-room-only crowd of 90 or 100 people, many of whom supported more bear hunting.
"Of course the Alaska Board of Game and many in the Department of Fish and Game want to kill bears -- black bears and brown bears -- statistics, research, science and common sense be damned," Wayne Hall told refuge officials at the Anchorage hearing. "It must be an emotional thing."
Jim Adams, policy director for Audubon Alaska, said many visitors come to Alaska "hoping specifically for a life-transforming experience seeing bears." A policy to lower bear numbers to "create essentially a moose farm" is not acceptable, he said.
State Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, testified that the federal government doesn't have to be complicit in state "predator control."
But Vincent-Lang, of the Department of Fish and Game, told the federal agency that the liberalized bear hunt was not an effort to boost moose numbers through predator control.
'PLENTY OF BEARS'
The state doesn't intend to allow 70 bears to be killed a year indefinitely, Vincent-Lang testified. Instead, the goal is to target the bears most likely to cause trouble and, over a few years, "reduce or stabilize bear numbers," he said.
Brown bears already frequent bait stations set up for black bears and frighten them away, which is one reason to allow them to be hunted at those stations, Spraker said. Their meat will have to be salvaged.
The hunting season was virtually over when the refuge closed bear hunting, Spraker said. If too many female bears were being killed, the department would have closed the state hunt, he said.
"The only thing they accomplished is they got themselves into an arguing match with the department," he said.
The people against the brown bear hunts just don't like hunting, Crawford, of the advisory committee, said in an interview.
"There's not a conservation concern," he said. "There's plenty of bears. We should have access to harvest those bears."
Federal managers say they have already decided they won't allow hunting of brown bears over bait on the refuge. They are trying to determine what other steps to take, focusing on protecting adult female bears.
Reach Lisa Demer at email@example.com or 257-4390.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is taking public comment on its Kenai Peninsula brown bear conservation measures until Dec. 13. Comments can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org, faxed to 907-262-3599, or mailed to Refuge Manager, P.O. Box 2139, Soldotna, AK 99669.