By Jenny Neyman
At 800 or more pounds, with jaws that can snap a moose leg and claws able to slice skin with a mere graze, brown bears inevitably command attention, especially when there’s one rummaging through neighborhood garbage, busting into a chicken coop or, worst of all, attacking a person.
On the Kenai Peninsula, attention to brown bears is growing along with interactions. Brown bear sightings are up, the frequency of bear maulings has risen, and the number of animals shot in defense of life and property has increased in recent years. In 2008, 39 brown bears on the Kenai Peninsula were killed by humans in some means other than allowed hunting — DLPs, vehicle collision, etc. That’s the second time in three years that number has topped 20.
Seeing more brown bears and having more run-ins with them leads to a perception that the bear population is increasing, as well. Any brown bear interaction these days tends to be followed by the sentiment that Fish and Game should expand hunting opportunities of brown bears on the peninsula to control what is perceived to be a growing population.
But an increase in bear interactions doesn’t necessarily mean there are more bears. It may just mean there are more bears coming in contact with humans. Settlement, development and recreation also are increasing on the peninsula, with people encroaching into areas that have previously served as bear habitat. Add an opportunity for an easy meal for bears — such as unsecured garbage, bird feeders, livestock or fish carcasses — and it’s a recipe for trouble.
“Wherever there are increasing populations, like there is on the Kenai Peninsula where the public population is increasing in certain areas, you’re going to have more interactions with critters anyway. But those interactions are going to be quite noticeable when they involve a brown bear,” said Tina Cunning, subsistence and federal issues coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game
On the other hand, there may well be more bears. Fish and Game biologists have estimated the peninsula population of brown bears at 250 to 300. Jeff Selinger, area wildlife biologist with Fish and Game, has said he’s seen indications that the bear population has increased over the last decade. But it’s a long leap to go from perceptions and indications to a higher, healthy population figure that warrants expanded hunting opportunities, especially with Fish and Game’s conservative approach to game management.
When human-brown bear interactions spike on the Kenai, calls for more hunting opportunities rise, and Selinger is left to wade into those debates with the same unsatisfying response — no one knows how many brown bears there are.
“The biggest answer that the public demands with brown bears on the Kenai — and from other agencies and from media outlets on down the line — is how many bears are on the Kenai? And the bottom line is, we do not know. We never have known. We have never conducted a census on brown bears on the Kenai.” Continue reading