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Brown bear purge on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula another case of state overreach

Rick Sinnott
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has conducted the only scientific estimate of brown bears on the Kenai Peninsula, coming up with a figure of 624 in 2010. Carl Chapman / cc via flickr

Christine Cunningham has proven indisputably that Alaska’s women hunters can be just as monomaniacal about predator control as some of Alaska’s good ol’ boys. In her recent op-ed piece, Cunningham bemoaned the closure of brown bear hunting on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge as another case of “federal overreach.”

At least 70 brown bears were killed on the Kenai Peninsula in 2013, more than 11 percent of the population. How many more bears did Cunningham want to kill this year?

Killing Kenai’s brown bears

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which has conducted the only scientific estimate of brown bear abundance on the Kenai Peninsula, found 624 bears in 2010. The estimate, which used DNA samples collected in hair snares to identify individual bears, was expensive and is unlikely to be repeated on a regular basis.  

Because the estimate was twice as high as a decades-old guesstimate by state wildlife biologists, the Alaska Board of Game jumped at the chance to liberalize brown bear hunting on the Kenai. After killing less than 19 bears annually, on average, for two decades, 43 bears were killed in 2012. The board further liberalized hunting regulations in 2013, lengthening the hunting season and permitting an unlimited number of hunters.

In 2012 and 2013 there was no upper limit on the number of bears that could be shot. In 2014 there will be a 70-bear cap on harvest, including both boars and sows. For the first time, hunters will be allowed to shoot brown bears at bait stations, long considered taboo because it would lead to abuse and threaten the viability of brown bear populations.

The 70 brown bears killed this year included 24 adult females. That is probably an unsustainable rate of harvest, given that brown bears produce few young in a lifetime and the population estimate included cubs of all ages.

Here’s something few people seem to realize. The population estimate included about 200 adult males and 200 adult females.  The state cannot expect to eliminate 70 adult bears annually, orphaning any dependent cubs, for very many years before the Kenai population is pushed to extinction.

Most of the bears were killed on land managed by federal agencies. In October, the refuge manager announced a 30-day moratorium on brown bear hunting. Most brown bears are now in dens until next May so there’s a little time for the state to come to its senses. The FWS is not inclined to allow brown bear baiting on the refuge next year. 

The closure should have come as no surprise to state authorities because the federal agency had refused to allow the state’s latest wolf control program onto the refuge and had threatened to do the same with the overenthusiastic bear hunt.

Federal overreach?

Nowadays it seems as if some people consider every federal decision a bona fide example of federal overreach. Maybe someone needs to coin a term to describe federal decisions that we like.

The refuge was established in 1941 as the Kenai National Moose Range, almost two decades before Alaska was granted statehood. It was created to protect the Kenai Peninsula’s world-famous moose population from a voracious predator: not bears or wolves, but hunters. But the refuge was never just about moose. The FWS has managed the refuge well for more than 70 years, allowing everything from hunting and trapping to oil and gas development as long as human use didn’t adversely affect fish and wildlife populations.

The moose range was renamed the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. ANILCA added land to the refuge and restated its purposes. The primary purpose is “to conserve the fish and wildlife populations and habitats in their natural diversity …”

Another refuge purpose is “to provide, in a manner compatible with these purposes, opportunities for fish and wildlife-oriented recreation.” In other words, hunting and other backcountry recreation is not supposed to adversely affect natural diversity. Predator control -- in this case, the State of Alaska’s effort to reduce brown bear numbers substantially on the Kenai Peninsula -- will adversely affect natural diversity.

Although the FWS routinely allows the state to manage wildlife on the refuge, the federal agency is required to conserve refuge resources according to federal law. The Alaska Board of Game’s decision to allow an annual harvest of 70 bears from an estimated population of 400 adult bears is a case of state overreach, an effort to turn a significant chunk of Alaska’s moose habitat into a game farm by eliminating many of the large predators.

North American model of wildlife conservation

In her op-ed piece, Cunningham objected to the refuge’s placing “the values of visitors and natural diversity beliefs above the rights of hunters.” She characterized predator control as a “conservation measure.”

She cited the “North American Model of Fish and Wildlife Conservation” to justify her belief that hunters maintain the “right and accept the responsibility” to own the nation’s wildlife. That’s an utter perversion of the model. 

She expressed it another way -- “It gives people ownership of this country’s game” -- but that’s almost as bad. Game includes animals people hunt for food, fur and trophies -- a relatively short list. Wildlife includes all wild animals. When the model uses “wildlife” it doesn’t mean only game animals. According to the model, nobody owns America’s wildlife, but every American citizen, not just hunters and trappers, has a stake in its management.

The model doesn’t include fish, as Cunningham assumed, because they are managed very differently than wildlife. And it’s a uniquely North American commitment to wildlife management originally promoted by influential hunters such as Theodore Roosevelt. The model was ingrained into the profession of wildlife management and has become a touchstone for wildlife managers in North America.

Most politicians don’t subscribe to the model. In fact, politicians have hijacked state wildlife management to coddle hunters, trappers and guides. The Alaska Legislature enacted an “intensive management” law in 1994, requiring state wildlife managers to boost moose, caribou and deer populations at the expense of predators. Gov. Parnell only appoints hunters, trappers or guides to the Alaska Board of Game despite the fact that all Alaskans are stakeholders.

Although board members espouse allegiance to the model, recent members don’t seem to believe in all seven principles. The board has allowed hunters to sell bear hides and other parts in recent years, a clear contradiction to the prohibition on the sale of wildlife.

That hunters and guides have more influence than others in wildlife management is a common refrain in other states as well. The model has come under fire in recent years, but has worked remarkably well for many species. It would work a lot more effectively if more hunters and officials in charge of wildlife management gave it more than lip service.

Tail is wagging the dog

Cunningham insisted that many more brown bears be shot to save the moose population. However, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the primary factor keeping the Kenai moose population at low numbers is unsuitable habitat, not predators.  The peninsula’s moose need several catastrophic wildfires like those that enhanced thousands of acres for moose in the early 20th century. Cunningham blamed the FWS for refusing to allow habitat enhancement, but state policy requires that wildfires be extinguished as soon as possible.

Ironically, even the Board of Game doesn’t believe the liberalized bear hunt is going  to restore the moose population on the Kenai Peninsula. Chairman Ted Spraker said the board passed the proposal solely to increase brown bear hunting opportunity, because “that’s what the public wants.” 

Spraker and Cunningham both know that hunters are a minority. Nationally, only 15 percent of Americans over age 16 hunt. And they both know bear hunters are a minority within a minority. Only 5 percent of hunters target any kind of bear.  Most of these are black bears, because brown bear numbers have been greatly diminished and they are not legally hunted in the Lower 48. Less than one in 10,000 people hunt any kind of bear. Perhaps only about one in 100,000 hunt brown bears.

Stack those numbers up against the remainder of the public, most of whom appreciate bears, even in Alaska. A survey of Alaska voters and resident hunters in 1992 found about half of Alaska’s voters, including hunters, were tolerant of bears in urban areas. Only 22 percent of voters supported trophy hunting, the primary motivation for hunting brown bears. Sixty-three percent of voters and 39 percent of hunters were opposed to baiting black bears. Brown bear baiting was prohibited at the time and is not as acceptable as baiting black bears now. Voters and resident hunters were willing to pay more to see brown bears than other iconic Alaska wildlife like whales, wolves, caribou, Dall sheep and eagles. Moose were on the bottom of the list, slightly less interesting than “a large concentration of seabirds.”

Economically, bears were more valuable than any other species and bear viewing was more valuable than bear hunting. Spraker is familiar with that study. But he still pretends “the public” wants more bear hunting opportunities on the Kenai Peninsula. This greatly diminished concept of the public is why some hunters and trappers want to keep other citizens off the board of game.

Correct decision

The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge provides hunting opportunities unparalleled in other states. Cunningham recognizes that. “I love living here,” she told a reporter in 2010, noting in particular the opportunities for hiking, fishing and hunting. "We've got so much land here, and public land especially," she added. "You go to the Lower 48 to enjoy the outdoors and the resources aren't available."

The state decision was not about providing more moose for hunters, it was intended to reduce brown bear numbers. The refuge doesn’t belong to Kenai residents just because they live closest. The Kenai Peninsula is not a game ranch.

The refuge has made the right decision in suspending brown bear hunting until more information is available on the effect of the 2012 and 2013 harvests. Fortunately, the FWS intends to maintain natural diversity in the wildlife refuge, the management strategy preferred by most of the public.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Contact him at  rickjsinnott@gmail.com