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Some 70 Kenai Peninsula bears may die before winter snows fly

Craig Medred
Courtesy Doug Lindstrand

Alaska appears to be winning its war on Kenai Peninsula grizzly bears. The body count for the iconic animals now stands at 64 for the year, and area wildlife biologist Jeff Selinger said Thursday it’s possible the kill could hit 70 before the bears hibernate.

As of 2010, an estimated 624 bears inhabited the 16,000-square-mile peninsula south of Alaska's largest city, according to a federal study. Scientists familiar with the management of bear populations say that a maximum of about 8 percent of the population -- or about 49 bears in this case -- can be killed every year without driving the population down.

The Alaska Board of Game, which manages wildlife in the 49th state, liberalized the Kenai brown bear hunting season in order to reduce the population’s size. In March, Game Board Chairman Ted Spraker suggested it might be best if the number of bears living on the Peninsula was cut in half.

“Two hundred to 300 is a number the community has lived with for years,” said Spraker, who retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist who also lives on the Kenai.

'Taking a big risk'

What is unclear is how long Kenai grizzlies would need to be harvested at levels in excess of sustained yield to cut a population of 600 to 300. Bears are notoriously difficult animals to census, and if too many females are removed from the population by humans, bear numbers can quickly plummet.

Not everyone is happy with the plan.

"Taking over 60 bears is almost hard to believe,” said retired state bear research biologist John Schoen, now the science advisor emeritus for Audubon Alaska. "I just can't believe it. Fish and Game has such a wonderful track record of bear management.

"This is taking a big risk."

Schoen's big concern is with the loss of reproductive females, the key to maintaining a healthy, stable, functioning population of bears. Fish and Game used to manage mortality to keep the kill of females below 10 per year. There is no longer a limit and 20 sows have died thus far in 2013.

Only 15 years ago, Fish and Game labeled the Kenai Peninsula population of brown bears as a "'Species of Special Concern.' The department took this action,” officials noted at the time, "because the population 'is vulnerable to a significant decline due to low numbers, restricted distribution, dependence on limited habitat."

Schoen was working for Fish and Game at the time. He points out the policy called for conservative management in line with the way the state has managed bears since statehood.

Biologists carefully monitor human-caused bear deaths with the intent of keeping them under 20 per year. Often as not, that meant there was no bear hunting. By the time bear seasons approached in the fall, so many of the animals had died in vehicle collisions, illegal bear hunts or in DLP shootings – legal bear kills in defense of life or property – there wasn't enough of a quota left to allow a season.

Bear numbers start to increase

Under this conservative conservation scheme, the number of bears on the Kenai began to increase in the 2000s, and the state began to carefully liberalize restrictions on kills. In 2005 the management goal went from an annual mortality of no more than 20 bears or six females older than a year to 20 bears with up to eight females. The limit was boosted again to not more than 10 females the next year.

With the grizzly sows producing a goodly number of cubs every year through that decade, the Kenai bear population kept climbing, despite increasing numbers of deaths from shootings -- both legal and illegal.

Along with this increased numbers of bears, however, came increased problems. Almost every summer there was one or more bear maulings:

Peninsula residents asked the board to do something. The board’s answer was to increase bear hunting numbers for 2013.

Drawing permit hunts, which tightly controlled the number of hunters in the past were, were eliminated and replaced with registration hunts that let anyone pick up a bear-hunting permit. The annual bear-hunting season was extended to include a period from Sept. 1 to May 31. Shooting bears over bait was legalized. And an annual limit of 70 bears was established starting in 2014.

No limit this year

There is no limit this year but the kill for 2013 could hit 70, too. Seventy bears this year and another 70 next year could amount to a kill of 140 bears, or about 22 percent of the population in just two years. There is no longer a limit on the number of sows that can be killed.

"I really don't know what to say to that,'' said Schoen, who pointed out that the traditional standard for sustainable management of grizzly bears calls for harvesting no more than 4 to 6 percent of the population each year.

Selinger said he could not comment on what the heavy hunting might mean to the survival of Peninsula bears.

But it is clear a few years of this sort of killing will significantly reduce the population. The board has told state wildlife biologists to establish a goal for a new, biologically sustainable, minimum number of grizzlies on the Kenai. Selinger said he couldn't talk about that, but added that Fish and Game bear biologist Sean Farley is working on coming up with a number.

Testifying before the Board in the spring, Farley said the Kenai bear population has increased to the point it is no longer a species of concern, but cautioned that bear populations must still be managed conservatively given how hard it is to monitor their numbers. Unlike moose, which can fairly easily be counted from the air when the trees are leafless and the ground of Alaska is snow-covered, bears spend the winter in dens, the summers in thick foliage and only rarely congregate.

Throw in the massive home ranges for brown bears and the counting gets very, very difficult. At best, any number remains an estimate. The study that pegged the population at 624 picked that number as the point of highest probability in a range of from 504 bears to 772 bears, cubs included.

The data difficulties make the scientists concerned about ratcheting the population down too fast, but it's clearly headed down this year. Schoen speculated that the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, which covers 3,000 square miles on the Peninsula, might find itself forced to set its own, more conservative bear-hunting rules to protect grizzlies.

The refuge is charged with maintaining ecosystems in their natural state, and the natural state these days appears to include a significant number of the grizzly bears that have flourished as the state has managed salmon runs to record highs. Salmon provide lots of food for bears.

39 shot by hunters

Of the 64 dead bears so far this year, Selinger reported 39 -- 18 of them sub adults -- have been shot by hunters, who are required to report their kills after they finish their hunts.

“We have 38 confirmed,” he said. "We have reports of another bear taken that has not been reported or sealed to my knowledge, but it was witnessed to be harvested."

Another 25 bears were legally killed in defense-of-life-and-property shootings, illegally killed by poachers, dispatched by state officials because they were causing problems, hit by motor vehicles or died of unknown causes.

"There was one road kill," Selinger said; two bears found dead from unknown causes, and one clearly illegal kill.

“It was a collared bear,” Selinger said. "We found evidence it was shot." 

On the Kenai, as elsewhere in Alaska, there are some people who don't like bears and will shot them almost on sight. And there are others who think they are providing a public service by helping to legally reduce the size of the Peninsula bear population.

A pair of grizzlies roaming the Russian River area all summer was among those killed. The Russian supports one of the state's most popular salmon fisheries, and bears have long frequented the area. The U.S. Forest Service, which manages the area, put in fish-cleaning tables along the clearwater stream years ago. Bears quickly learned that salmon carcasses piled up downstream from those tables and started arriving to dine. The fish tables are gone now, but bears that learned to feast on carcasses keep coming back, looking for that food. Sometimes they confront anglers to try to get fish.

Two of those bears will be coming back no more. There are some anglers happy about that, and a lot of bear lovers unhappy.

"Anglers, outdoor enthusiasts and tourists alike were treated to anything but an aesthetic spectacle earlier this month when a few hunters shot the bears that have been frequenting the waterway for weeks, and then proceeded to gut, butcher and skin the animals on site," wrote the Redoubt Reporter in September.

The Forest Service heard from many people angry about those shootings.

Alaskans love their bears when they don't fear their bears.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com