ANCHORAGE — The Alaska Board of Game voted to give Kenai Peninsula brown bears a bit more protection by lowering the cap on how many can be killed each year before the state shuts down the hunt.
After hearing from federal Kenai National Wildlife Refuge managers and biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the board set caps for the upcoming season at a range of 50-60 bears total with a maximum of 8-12 adult females.
While the new range is lower than the 70-bear cap the board had previously directed the state to manage to, it is still higher than what both state biologists and federal biologists recommended.
State hunt managers and federal refuge managers have sparred in recent years over the Kenai Peninsula’s brown bear population after a 2010 census showed there to be nearly 600 bears in the area, or nearly double what managers had been estimating in previous years.
The Board of Game eased restrictions on the hunt, citing increased human-bear interactions, Fish and Game data that showed increased defense of life and property killings, or DLPs, and a larger population of bears to handle a higher level of harvest.
Refuge managers balked at the number of brown bears killed, however. In 2013, the first year that hunters were allowed to kill brown bears under the new regime, 70 bears will killed either through hunting or human interactions. Refuge managers estimated that 17 percent of the reproductive-age females in the Kenai Peninsula bear population were killed. In response, federal managers closed the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge for the last month of the fall season in 2013 and again in 2014. Currently brown bear hunting is closed through May 31 on the Refuge.
“It’s a big issue and it’s one that has a lot of importance to a lot of people,” said Board Vice-Chairman Nate Turner as the group considered a state proposal for caps. “We’ve talked a lot at this board about differing mandates and objectives of management with state and federal agencies and this is probably the issue, for this area, that we have the most highlighted differences.”
The core of that difference in brown bear management lies in how many bears should be in the Kenai Peninsula population to keep it healthy and how to manage hunting and mortality of those bears to maintain that population number.
Refuge managers suggested severely curtailing the current level of hunting activity to help the brown bear population rebuild.
During his testimony, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Fish and Wildlife Biologist John Morton told the board that a harvest level of 30 total bears with 5 adult females would help the population rebound to its 2010 level. However, he said a harvest of 40 bears with a max of 8 adult females would likely maintain the current population of about 480 bears.
“The concern here is that we have … a closed population… we aren’t getting any additional immigration (of bears),” Morton said. “I think that is why we’re a little concerned and conservative about the population.”
Board of Game Chairman Ted Spraker was vehemently opposed to the idea of allowing the brown bear population to grow. He referenced the board’s 2013 meeting on the Kenai Peninsula during which several dozen Kenai Peninsula residents testified about increased human and bear interactions and asked the board to allow more hunting.
“I’d rather see us keep on a similar track … rather than adjust to a lower (cap) and have this population build and have more problems with human-bear conflicts, more defense of life and property killings,” he said.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game management biologist Jeff Selinger told board members that when it comes to brown bears, the issue he hears most often from people on the Kenai Peninsula was that they did not feel safe when the population of bears was high.
“They want to be able to walk out of their home and feel safe and that they’re not going to have issues with bears,” he said.
The state recommended a cap of 40 bears with a cap of 8 adult females in its initial proposal to the board.
Technically, Fish and Game has the regulatory authority to change those caps without board approval, however, Selinger said such a maneuver would be highly unlikely.
“The board’s recommendation is one we intend to follow,” he said. “We’d have to have compelling evidence to change it.”
Kenai National Wildlife Refuge managers told board members that a cautious approach to Kenai’s brown bear population was scientifically warranted.
“The Kenai brown bear will continue to be strongly influenced by habitat loss and fragmentation and multiple potential sources of human caused mortality as the human population continues to grow on the Kenai Peninsula,” Refuge Manager Andy Loranger said. “… Our recent closure decisions were in the interest of ensuring the continued compatibility of sport hunting of brown bears as an authorized use of the Refuge.”
While the state focused on harvest numbers, federal refuge managers said they were considering a number of changes that could affect the way predatory game could be taken on refuges statewide.
During a presentation to the board Regional Refuge Ecologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Heather Tonneson said changes the service is considering include banning the take of bear cubs or sows with cubs, the take of brown bears over bait, and the take of bears using traps or snares on refuges in Alaska.
The Board of Game will reconvene on Wednesday to finish discussion on several pending proposals that would curtail trapping in Cooper Landing, Seward and Moose Pass. It will also consider proposals to shorten the season reduce the bag limit for ptarmigan on the southern peninsula, allow an earlier opening date for beaver trapping, require trapping tags peninsula-wide and creating a new management area for Kachemak Bay.
Reach Rashah McChesney at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @litmuslens.