Funny River Road resident Jim Harpring said his property at mile 31 is the first place where brown bears encounter humans.
With his home at the confluence of the Funny River and Kenai River backed up against the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, he said bear sightings are frequent as they come down from the mountains to fish in the river. From his front porch he counts an average of nine bears in the summer evenings while the number of moose he has seen in the area has gone down the last few years.
“I’m not a hunter but the number of bear encounters are unacceptable,” he said. “There has to be a balance.”
Harpring was one of 15 people who testified Wednesday about the proposed closure of brown bear hunting on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge when the season opens Sept. 1. About 60 people attended the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service public hearing at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. Three people, two representing Alaska wilderness groups, supported the proposed hunting closure on the refuge.
Using Alaska Department of Fish and Game data from the last two decades, refuge manager Andy Loranger said the brown bear population has declined 18 percent on the Kenai Peninsula, due to human-caused mortalities. The service proposed a temporary closure effective Sept. 1 to May 31, 2015 as a “protective measure to ensure consistency with refuge mandates.”
More liberal hunting regulations were enacted in 2012 by the Alaska Board of Game and as a result 168 brown bears, including 42 adult sows, have been killed in the last three years, said refuge supervisory biologist John Morton.
In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service used DNA mark re-captures at baiting stations to estimate the peninsula-wide brown bear population at 582. Using a model that projects brown bear population growth at 3 percent per year, and then factors in the harvest rate, refuge biologists estimated the brown bear population could drop to 492 in 2015.
“In a small population, if you kill a lot of bears, it will have an impact,” Morton said. “This is why a cautious approach is warranted. The refuge is mandated by Congress to conserve wildlife population and that includes brown bears.”
In 2013 the hunting season was extended and hunters were allowed to take bears over bait on the refuge. Loranger said 71 bears were taken during that hunting season.
Last October, the Wildlife Service implemented a 30-day emergency closure on the refuge.
To date this year, 54 brown bears have been killed, including five adult sows, 52 through hunting. Fish and Game has set a cap to not exceed 70 bears and that adult sow mortalities not exceed 17.
Many people who testified said the Fish and Wildlife Service is overstepping Fish and Game management control with a proposed closure on the refuge.
Doug Vincent-Lang, director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation of Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said if the state was concerned about the brown bear population, it would close the hunt when the harvest total reaches 67 bears or 15 adult sows.
“What is missing from the discussion is the requests from the public to respond to increasing brown bear populations and negative interactions,” Vincent-Lang said. “The refuge is more on management philosophy and ethics than resource conservation. … No definition of natural diversity is offered. I don’t believe the intention of Congress was to allow the federal government to hold such power over fish and wildlife that have been recognized as a state resource.”
He said policy regulations set by the Board of Game to allow bear baiting helped hunters identify the sex of a bear and selectively harvest boars and preserve sows.
Soldotna resident Ted Spraker, chairman of the board, said it is out of character for a board member to testify but he felt it was important to clarify the decisions the board made on hunting regulations. Out of seven proposals the board passed in 2013, the refuge vetoed six of them, a move he said felt unprecedented.
“We often hear bears have low reproductive potential but it seems to me they never finish the sentence,” he said. “They also have a high survival rate of cubs and are long-lived animals.”
For the 2015 Board of Game meetings in Anchorage, Spraker said they would take a close look at the cap of 70 bears and 17 females.
Elaina Spraker, who is a clinic director for Women on Target hunting group, said the expanded hunt in 2013 gave more opportunities to connect female hunters and her family with the outdoors. She said she questioned refuge biologists changing the study area to determine the brown bear population.
“This is equivalent to counting bees in a beehive on a sunny day when they are out pollinating flowers,” she said. “This is our land and federal employees are paid by our tax dollars. We deserve better.”
In 1998, the state listed the Kenai brown bear population as a population of special concern.
Homer resident Dr. Davis Raskin, representing Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, spoke in support of the proposed closure. He said if the trends continue to decline, it could cause irreparable harm.
“When taking brown bears over bait was first legalized last spring, 40 of the 52 killed at bait stations,” Raskin said. “With this potential overharvest, action is needed to provide adequate protection. It is clear the wisest regulation should be based on science and not anecdotal unscientific speculations.”
Several people at the hearing cried federal overreach by the refuge.
Spencie Netschert, president of the Kenai Peninsula Chapter of Safari Club International, said hunters are conservationists and no species has ever gone extinct because of hunting. She gave the refuge a letter from U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who also expressed her concerns that the refuge actions could set a dangerous precedent that undermines future wildlife management.
“I find it distressing and shameful the refuge would make scientific baseless decisions,” Netschert said. “The refuge should be for all people. We own it, you only manage it.”
Jessee Bjorkman, a teacher and hunting education instructor at Nikiski Middle-High School, said he resents the opinion that all hunters are killers.
“I don’t kill for sport. Hunters are enjoyers of wildlife,” he said. “Let’s be honest about our data please. Let the Board of Game do their job and let the process work.”
Floyd Frost, a retired Department of Corrections officer, said he is an avid outdoorsman and can read bears mannerisms well.
“Most brown bears are natural born bullies,” he said. “I believe what you’re doing is wrong.”
While the majority of people who testified expressed frustration with the possible action to override Fish and Game, one person offered a suggestion to protect the bear population.
Ed Schmitt, who represented the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, said a majority of visitors to the state want wildlife to be viewed and not hunted. The Board of Game is the only place in the country that hunts wolves and bears out of airplanes and uses conservation dollars for an anti-predator approach, he said. A more balanced approach would be worthwhile, he said.
“The Board of Game does have a good tool you could utilize called a moratorium,” he said. “Maybe instead of going through this and being insulted by everyone in the room, you could impose a moratorium.”
Joe Hardy said he felt like he was wasting his time coming to testify because a hunting closure is already a foregone conclusion.
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, which had steadily declined for years due to factors of habitat loss and hunters. Hardy said he found it ironic a proposed brown bear hunt closure would come during moose season.
“We are protecting bears but nothing is done to increase moose numbers,” he said.
After receiving verbal and written testimony, the refuge is expected to announce a final decision today, Loranger said.
“Our legal responsibilities include conserving a healthy brown bear population in its natural diversity to continue the opportunity for visitors to hunt and view brown bears in the future,” Loranger said. “Brown bears are a valuable resource and maintaining a healthy population benefits us all.”