Only four years ago, about 40 grizzly bears on the Kenai Peninsula were shot in self defense, run down by cars, poached or killed by authorities after being perceived as dangerous.
This year the number fell to 10, and only one of them was a sow. No one is quite sure why, though wildlife biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game are confident it isn't because there are fewer bears living in the Kenai Peninsula Borough's 25,600 square miles.
There are enough, they say, that for the first time since 2004, state game officials are handing out registration permits for a Kenai grizzly bear hunt. The hunt opens Oct. 1 and will run until Nov. 30 -- or until 10 sows of reproductive age are killed.
The bear season comes toward the end of a year during which just one female brown bear old enough to mate has been killed by what officials call "human causes,'' according to state area wildlife biologist Jeff Selinger.
"All indications are that we have a healthy population of brown bears on the Kenai Peninsula," Selinger said.
For the past five years, the only Kenai brown bear hunt involved hunters drawing for permits, a much more restrictive hunt. The highest number of bears taken during those years was five.
Selinger knows interest is high; more than 120 permits were issued the first day they became available last week.
The hunt will not only be restricted by the cap on the number of sows that can be killed but by the climate as well. Kenai brown bears start heading for their dens in October. Sows with cubs, illegal to shoot even if a hunter has a registration permit, are usually the first to den. Big, old bears tend to be the last to take shelter for the winter.
The hope of biologists is that the bulk of the registration-hunt harvest will focus on the old males, which are superfluous to the reproductive needs of a bear population once thought to be in danger of disappearing.
"If hunters take male bears, the hunt will stay open longer," said Fish and Game area wildlife biologist Gino DelFrate.
How many grizzlies roam the Kenai Peninsula is unknown. For many years, state wildlife biologists relied on an estimate of 200 to 350 animals, though DelFrate called that estimate "way outdated, and probably no longer applicable."
Surveying brown bears is both costly and difficult in the best of times. "Finding brown objects in a brown forest in the summer is nearly impossible," DelFrate noted. "Instead, we're basing our management decisions on what we feel is the health of the population and the productivity of the population. All along, we felt our population was stable to growing."
Turnagain Arm: Bear thoroughfare?
It wasn't too long ago wildlife managers were worrying that the Kenai bears were an isolated population extremely vulnerable to human kills. Research in the past few years, however, has shown the grizzlies of the Kenai are far from isolated. They regularly cross between the mainland and the peninsula in the Portage area. The waters of Turnagain Arm -- a 50-mile-long fiord along the north side of the Peninsula -- have proven much less of an impediment to travel than once thought. There are indications that bears might be crossing with some regularity between the Kenai Mountains on the south side of the arm and the Chugach Mountains between Anchorage and Girdwood on the north side of the arm.
A reduction in the number of DLP (defense of life and property) bears killed on the Kenai Peninsula is the main factor that allowed state wildlife managers to open a registration hunt.
"Our Peninsula staff has worked extremely hard to reduce DLP kill," DelFrate said, "and I would like to think this is part of the success of their programs.
"Only one female bear taken seems pretty low, so I'm hopeful that some of the public is getting the message."
An interagency task force including officials from state and federal agencies as well as the Kenaitze Natives has focused on the problem since 2009, particularly at the confluence of Russian and Kenai rivers. The popular fishing destination can attract lots of people, lots of bears and lots of food -- a sometimes lethal combination.
Contact Mike Campbell at mcampbell(at)alaskadispatch.com