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Excessive kill of Kenai Peninsula brown bears could put their population at risk

  • Author: Bill Sherwonit
  • Updated: September 29, 2016
  • Published December 13, 2013

This year's unusually high kill of Kenai Peninsula brown bears has gotten a lot of attention lately, and rightfully so. The peninsula's population of brown bears (the coastal cousins of grizzlies) simply can't sustain an annual human kill of 70 or more bears for long. That's not my opinion, but the shared assessment of many bear biologists and wildlife managers. The bigger question isn't whether the 2013 kill is too high, but how long it can be allowed before the Kenai's brown bear population will be irreparably harmed.

Kenai National Wildlife Refuge staff are among those convinced that even one year of 70 bear kills is too many, especially when two dozen of the dead bears were adult females, critical to a population's health and stability. So in late October refuge manager Andy Loranger announced an emergency closure of its brown bear sport hunt. "This level of mortality is not scientifically sustainable," Loranger explained, and if allowed it will inevitably "create a conservation concern for this population."

The decision to close the hunt wasn't made lightly. "It is a big deal," says John Morton, the refuge's supervisory wildlife biologist. "This was an unprecedented action, the first time the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has (unilaterally) closed a sport-hunting season on any national refuge in Alaska."

Brown bear baiting at issue

Beyond the emergency closure, refuge staff will begin work on a longer term bear harvest management strategy, one that's guaranteed to be different than the state's, approved last spring by the Board of Game (BOG). Already federal and state officials disagree on one new hunting policy: in 2014, state regulations will generally allow hunters to kill brown bears at bait stations on the Kenai Peninsula. But those who hunt in the Kenai Refuge will be prohibited from doing so. To be clear, Morton flatly states, "There's no way we'll allow brown bear baiting."

Given the circumstances -- an alarmingly high bear kill followed by an unparalleled federal action -- Alaskans quickly (and predictably) responded to the emergency closure with a mix of praise and condemnation. Some, like me, believe that refuge staff absolutely made the right decision to close the hunt and begin developing its own brown bear management strategy, given the extreme measures put in place by the Board of Game. My only question is why refuge managers waited so long to take action: the late October closure had little real impact. By their own count, at least 66 Kenai brown bears had been killed by the time it went into effect, already an unsustainably high number -- and one that reflects only reported mortalities. Those include bears killed by hunters, killed in defense of life and property (so called DLPs), and others hit by vehicles. There's no way to know how many additional bears were killed by people who felt threatened or simply have no tolerance for bears and which went unreported.

Those most at odds with federal managers include the usual suspects:

• Residents who want increased opportunities to hunt bears and other wildlife, without regard for conservation concerns;

• Those who simply don't like sharing the landscape with bears; and

• State wildlife officials who want bear numbers to be greatly reduced to meet their own agenda.

The latter includes Board of Game chair Ted Spraker and Division of Wildlife Conservation Director Doug Vincent-Lang. In a press release that quickly followed the refuge's announcement of the emergency closure, Vincent-Lang expressed the state's disappointment with "an unnecessary and unjustified pre-emption of state hunting regulations" while lamenting, "once again we are faced with overreach by the federal government into the management of Alaska's wildlife."

One might reasonably ask how refuge staff is overreaching, when its clear mandate is "to maintain and enhance a healthy brown bear population." If refuge managers believe that the Kenai refuge's bear population is in jeopardy, they are obligated to take action, whatever the state's position and strategy might be. It's worth noting that the quote above comes from a "Conservation Assessment of the Kenai Peninsula Brown Bear," issued in 2001 by an Interagency Brown Bear Study Team, a team that included three state biologists. It's also worth noting that Loranger had repeatedly warned the board that the refuge might enact such an emergency closure, if it deemed this year's bear kill to be excessive.

Spraker and Vincent-Lang have defended the state's current management of Kenai Peninsula brown bears in commentaries published by Anchorage and Kenai area newspapers. The two insist that their goal is to "stabilize bear numbers and allow legal harvest of the bears most likely to be causing problems (with humans)." Using an economic analogy, they describe the state's approach as merely a "market correction." But you have to wonder what size of a correction they've envisioned, since the board placed no upper limits on this year's harvest. And they plan to allow at least 70 brown bears to be killed again next year, with no apparent limits on the sex and age of the bears.

Given all that's known about bear populations and sustainable harvest levels, this is hardly a "stabilizing" strategy. Rather it's a formula for dramatically diminishing the Kenai Peninsula's brown bear population and putting it at risk of a collapse, especially if similar numbers of adult female bears are killed next year.

Both the Board of Game and Vincent-Lang say they're allowing -- in fact encouraging -- this huge increase in brown bear kills because of local residents' complaints and their own safely concerns. But given the state's escalating war on Alaska's wolves and bears in recent years, many people -- myself among them -- believe this new effort to "stabilize" the brown bear population is really another form of predator control. Spraker, especially, has made clear his intent to do whatever it takes to boost moose numbers on the Kenai Peninsula, including and especially reducing predators (no matter that changing habitat is a more critical factor). It seems no coincidence that Spraker's successful push to enact wolf control on the Kenai Peninsula has been followed by this sudden campaign to reduce brown bear numbers.

Other possible actions

If human-bear conflicts and public safety were truly the primary motivations for this increased bear kill, the Board of Game would have followed the Department of Fish and Game's recommendation: liberalize hunting regulations in those portions of the Kenai Peninsula where such conflicts are greatest; and take a more conservative approach in the backcountry, where conflicts are minimal. "We presented that option to the board because it has the best chance of reducing the number of problem bears," says Larry Van Daele, Fish and Game's regional wildlife supervisor for Southcentral Alaska.

Instead the board chose to liberalize bear hunting regulations throughout the Kenai Peninsula, against the advice of those whom Van Daele describes as "the technical experts," Fish and Game's biologists and wildlife managers.

Another action the state could take is to more actively address a factor that's contributed greatly to bear-human conflicts on the Kenai: a steadily increasing human population and growing development that is literally making new inroads into bear habitat. While the Board of Game has emphasized the steady growth of the Peninsula's brown bears, the human population has for decades been growing at a much faster rate, by an average of a thousand or more people per year.

More and more people live in areas that once belonged to the bears. And a substantial number of those people are either unaware that their behaviors contribute to bear-human conflicts or they don't give a damn. In developed parts of the Kenai Peninsula, as in Anchorage and other urban areas, some folks simply refuse to change their habits and lifestyles to accommodate bears or other wildlife. If the state and local communities sincerely want to address human-bear conflicts, they need to better address the human attractants that pull bears into neighborhoods, from garbage to dog food, bird feeders, and domestic animals.

At the same time, state wildlife officials should acknowledge that bear-hunting closures or restrictions on the Kenai Refuge are not going to significantly contribute to public-safety concerns. As Morton puts it, "our closure has nothing to do with what's happening along the urban interface; it shouldn't affect the BOG's intent to lower human-bear conflicts in more urban areas. That's where public safety concerns are highest, not on the refuge."

Too 'late in the season'?

Van Daele, for one, says he understands the refuge's decision to take a different management approach. "At the Board of Game meeting, Andy Loranger made it clear that if the bear kill appeared unsustainable, the refuge would close its bear hunt. The only thing about the closure that surprised me is that it happened so late in the season."

To a large degree, the Board of Game's recent decision to allow and encourage an increased sport-hunting kill of brown bears is tied to past and present estimates of the Kenai Peninsula's bear population.

It wasn't so long ago that the state of Alaska (joined by federal agencies) declared the peninsula's brown bears to be a "population of special concern." The state's concern in 2001 wasn't that the peninsula had too many brown bears, but that its population was small and relatively isolated. At the time, state and federal biologists estimated that some 250 to 300 brown bears inhabit the Kenai, with little flow between the peninsula and the mainland. And they worried that a steadily growing human population plus increased development would lead to increased bear-human conflicts, which in turn could threaten the health and stability of this small, insulated bear population.

Perceptions began to change significantly during the past decade, especially within the past few years. Ironically, it was a federal effort to better assess the peninsula's brown bear population that contributed to the view that brown bear numbers have grown dramatically.

In 2010, a joint study by the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and Chugach National Forest determined the Peninsula's brown bear population to be 624 animals (more or less). Federal managers emphasized that this new number could not be compared to the earlier estimate of 250 to 300 animals, because the first number was based on an extrapolation from other parts of Alaska, while the more recent one was the first to be based on scientific analysis using a DNA-based, mark-recapture model. In other words comparing the two would be similar to the proverbial comparison of apples and oranges.

Still, it's natural that people would make that comparison. And many Kenai Peninsula residents began to equate the new, larger number with increased bear-human conflicts and significantly higher DLP kills.

Morton and Loranger agree that the Peninsula's brown bear population is considerably more robust than it was a dozen years ago and say it's been "stable to slightly increasing for some period of time." In Loranger's words, "we have a healthy population that can sustain a higher human harvest." Or at least it could until this year's excessive kill. In a single year, Loranger argues, the kill of 70 or more bears, including at least two dozen female bears of reproductive age, has "changed the trajectory from stable to slightly increasing, to one that's now likely decreasing." To federal managers, that's unacceptable.

How big a kill can be sustained?

As much as he understands Loranger and Morton's concerns and appreciates the effort that went into the federal brown bear population estimate, Van Daele says Fish and Game still has lots of questions about the population's size and resiliency. And as one who has spent much of his adult life studying and managing brown bears, he interprets the data differently. Assuming the population is between 500 and 700 bears, Van Daele is confident it can sustain a single-year kill of about 70 bears. "I like brown bears," he says. "And if I thought this last year's kill would hurt the Kenai population in the long term, I'd be kicking and screaming about it."

But when asked whether such a high harvest level can be sustained indefinitely, even Van Daele admits he has his doubts.

The larger question, he says, is what level of kill can be sustained without harming the brown bear population. "Is it 70 bears?" he asks. "50 bears? 30?"

To better answer that question, Fish and Game is doing its own research "modeling" and Van Daele expects to have the department's conclusions ready for the Board of Game by next spring. "What we tell the board then will be based on science, not any sort of political litmus test," he says.

Whatever the results of that study, and whatever direction the Board of Game chooses to follow with the new data in hand, it's likely that federal managers will take a more cautious, conservative -- and conservation-oriented -- management approach with brown bears. Given the state's recent track record of "actively managing" bears and wolves, which mostly means knocking down their numbers as low as possible, those of us who care about the conservation of all wildlife can only applaud federal managers for choosing a different path than the one the Board of Game is taking, which for all practical purposes emphasizes ever-expanding predator control programs, no matter how the board chooses to label or frame it.

Bill Sherwonit has contributed essays and articles to a wide variety of publications (both traditional and online) and is the author of more than a dozen books, including "Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska's Arctic Wilderness" and "Chugach State Park: Alaska's Accessible Wilderness," the latter a collaboration with photographer Carl Battreall. He has written about Alaska's wildlife politics since the mid-1980s.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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