By Steve Meyer, for the Redoubt Reporter
The first sign of fresh greenery appearing in the landscape is a welcome sign of spring that most of us look forward to, perhaps even more so after this year’s seemingly longer and harsher winter than normal. The greenery promises another beautiful Alaska summer and seems to put everyone into high gear.
Most of us become somewhat rabid during the Alaska spring, as we know the time of moderate weather is short-lived and there is no time to waste getting out in it.
The appearance of new growth means a bit more to black bear hunters; food is once again available and the bears will be out filling their empty stomachs and making themselves visible. Black bears are omnivorous and their springtime diet consists largely of greenery and the occasional winterkill they may stumble across. That is until moose begin spring calving. Black and brown bears are one of the most significant factors in moose calf mortality and, depending on the area, may kill 80 percent of a given year’s calf production. This isn’t new; it’s simply a part of the natural world of predator/prey relationships.
When humans enter the natural world, there is competition between them and other predator species. In the case of bears, the competition is for moose. The human demand for moose for consumption has brought on some fairly drastic changes to black bear management in some parts of Alaska.
The Alaska Board of Game has approved changes to the taking of black bears under the auspices of predator control, and as such has allowed the taking of black bears with snares and allows transportation of hunters to certain areas by helicopter. Whether you agree with these changes or not, they are in place and it appears that is what the Department of Fish and Game has deemed appropriate to manage excess bear populations in certain areas. The Kenai Peninsula remains unaffected, but it isn’t difficult to project that eventuality if bear populations grow.
The Department of Fish and Game has done surveys regarding black bear populations in the areas of the 1947 burn and the 1969 Swanson River burn, although it has been some time since these were done. By their own admission it is virtually impossible, given the limited resources available, to accurately determine bear populations. Bears, being largely nocturnal and inhabiting very dense areas of cover, are difficult to account for in aerial surveys.
Hunter harvest surveys are the most significant data available to determine bear populations. The Kenai Peninsula harvest has increased some in the past 10 years, and nonresident black bear hunting has also increased. Numbers of bear-baiting permits have risen, although, surprisingly enough, at least according to published statistics, baiting is not the primary means by which black bears are harvested. It appears incidental harvest, by moose, sheep and goat hunters, is a slightly more significant factor. Sometimes, no matter how much we love research and statistics, the simple approach is more telling than any data that might be compiled, and that seems the case on the Kenai.
Anyone who has spent a fair amount of time out of doors, wandering the Kenai Peninsula over the last 30 years, can tell you there are more bears now than there have been. The simple observation or sightings of them cannot be overlooked, and there is no doubt that outdoor folks are seeing more bears. Just in casual outdoor activities, I have seen more bears in the past five years than in the previous 30 years combined. Sightings of brown bears, which once were very rare except in the most concentrated of salmon streams, are now common.
Seeing black bears in lowland areas, where they are the most difficult to spot, is also common now. It is difficult to glass a mountain slope in the Kenai Mountains without seeing black bears. On a fishing trip to Crescent Lake in July last year we witnessed seven black bears and two brown bears on one south-facing slope just in casual observation.
Spring black bears are excellent table fare, as are fall mountain bears. I have never personally taken a black bear off of a salmon stream in the fall and cannot attest to the flavor of the meat, although most say it is not particularly good. Without sounding too cliché, black bear tastes like pork.
To me, at least, a black bear roast would be difficult to discern from a pork roast, and all the more reason to get out and hunt for them. The additional benefit is helping to keep these bear populations in check and not having to go to the drastic measures that have been adopted in other areas. Moose hunters who find themselves unsuccessful can take a prime black bear for the table and help reduce moose calf mortality and increase their moose hunting odds while enjoying the Alaska outdoors. And really, isn’t that why most of us are here?
Steve Meyer has been a central peninsula resident since 1971 and is an avid hunter, fisherman and trapper, regularly spending more than 200 days a year in the field. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.