Wildlife

Biologists wrestle with how much hunting Kenai brown bear population can support

SOLDOTNA – State and federal wildlife managers have not always agreed on the number of brown bears living on the Kenai Peninsula or the best way to manage the population, however large.

But recent studies by the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game have yielded some of the most specific population data in decades.

"As of the end of 2014, there are 478 brown bears on the Peninsula. That's what we believe is out there," said John Morton, a supervisory biologist with the refuge.

That's an increase from earlier estimates, but just a sliver of the 32,000 brown bears that Fish and Game estimates live in Alaska, from the Arctic to Southeast. About 3,000 are believed to live in bear-dense Kodiak Island, which is about twice as big as the Peninsula.

Bear hair on barbed wire

Since 1993, an extrapolated estimate of 250 to 300 Kenai brownies was the benchmark provided by the state, but that changed in 2010, after the refuge conducted an intensive DNA-based study that involved collecting hair samples for more than a month.

Bear habitat across the Peninsula's 16,000 square miles was divided into cells forming a grid. Each cell had a lure station baited with fermented fish oil and cow's blood, surrounded by barbed wire. As the bruins stepped over or went under the wire, they left hair on the barbs. More than 11,000 hair samples were collected, which were then sorted – brown bears from black -- and analyzed.

"Our estimate, for 2012 and based on the field work from 2010, was 582 brown bears," Morton said.

While the number was a snapshot in time, according to Jeff Selinger, Fish and Game's Soldotna area wildlife manager, the 582 number was useful when added to Fish and Game's own radio-telemetry studies of the population. The number of bears in Fish and Game's study changes from year to year as animals die or slip out of their collar, but at any given time 30 to 40 sows are being monitored.

"The collars last six years or more, and we replace them as needed," Selinger said. "The goal is to follow these bears their entire lives."

Consequently, biologists can determine exactly where the bears den, where they roam and whether they have any cubs.

Information gleaned so far includes when the grizzlies first breed, average litter size, when cubs are weaned and what percentage of cubs survive the first few years of life, among other things. The information has helped foster some changes in brown bear management.

"We weren't managing for that specific 250-300 number before the estimate," Selinger said. "We were trying to manage a stable population with a minimum number of negative interactions with humans. But prior to 2012, it seemed like the number of (Peninsula) bears was going up. There were people who felt threatened by bears, and we were having a lot of DLPs (defense-of-life-or-property shootings)."

Bear cap rises

Prior to 2012, Selinger had been under a department directive for more than a decade to manage brown bears conservatively.

When he took the job in 2002, Selinger was asked to manage for an average of not more than 14 brown bears (including no more than six sows) killed during a three-year period. By 2003, he championed and received approval to increase the cap to 20, including no more than eight females older than 12 months.

The higher cap didn't do hunters much good.

That's because the number of brown bears killed annually in DLP shootings, dispatched by Fish and Game personnel or who perished in collisions with vehicles, met or exceeded the cap, often before hunters got afield. The peak came in 2008, when 40 bears died from human causes that didn't involve hunting.

Hunts happened in 92 percent of the seasons from 1974-2011, but some were only a few days long. The average harvest was 11.3 bears.

A different strategy

To quell public concern, the Alaska Board of Game in 2012 recommended more bears be killed. Within months, spring and fall drawing permit hunts, which tightly control the number of hunters and direct them to specific locales, were set up. In addition, a registration hunt was added, and more than 600 hunters applied.

The result: 44 brown bears dead, including 13 adult females.

Then the refuge released its census of 582 bears, and that changed everything again.

"In 2013 we had no cap," Selinger said.

The bear hunting season was extended and spring hunters were allowed to hunt brown bears over bait.

The result: 71 brown bears dead, including 23 adult females.

Last year, a cap of 70 bears or 17 adult females was established, and hunters stayed under it. Sixty-nine brown bears were killed, including six adult females.

"In basically two-and-a-half years, almost 200 bears were killed, of which 42 were adult females," Morton said. "That's huge."

What now?

Using software typically employed to help manage endangered species, Morton said the brown bear population fell 18 percent since 2010. Without the relaxed hunting regulations, he said, it would have grown 10 percent to 643 bears.

Realizing that continuing to harvest brown bears at this rate would depress the population, Fish and Game is managing this season with a cap of 60 bears, no more than a dozen of them adult females.

"The purpose of liberalizing the brown bear harvest was to decrease the population numbers. We did that, and now we're trying to level things out," Selinger said.

Still, the refuge, which has jurisdiction on federal lands, supports an even lower cap of 30 to 40 bears, with no more than five to eight adult females.

"Based on our modeling, that would stabilize the population at around 480 bears and a reasonable harvest could persist at that level," Morton said.

As of Wednesday, the 2015 totals for brown bear deaths were 26 human-caused mortalities, with four of them adult females. Of these, 23 were killed by hunters – 18 in spring and five so far this fall.

Joseph Robertia is a freelance writer who lives in Kasilof with his wife, Colleen, and daughter, Lynx, where they operate Rogues Gallery Kennel. They have run several sleddog race, including the Iditarod and Yukon Quest..

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