By Joseph Robertia
It’s been more than a month since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued an emergency closure of brown bear sport hunting on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge on Oct. 26, but debate continues over whether this decision was reached for biological or philosophical reasons.
On Nov. 25 nearly 100 people — federal and state employees, representatives of conservation and pro-hunting organizations, as well as members of the general public for and against the closure — had an opportunity to share their views during a public hearing in Soldotna pursuant to the federal regulations with the emergency closure.
The refuge opened with a presentation by John Morton, supervisory wildlife biologist at the refuge, which detailed that the known human-caused mortality of brown bears on the Kenai Peninsula in 2013 was at least 70 bruins, of which 24 were adult females. This included a minimum of 43 bruins taken during spring and fall hunting seasons, 23 bears killed in defense-of-life-and-property shootings, and bears killed by agency actions, illegal takes or vehicle collisions. Of the 70, 38 were killed on federal lands.
“The total mortalities now represent more than 10 percent of the best available estimate of a total Kenai Peninsula brown bear population, numbering 624 bears,” Morton said.
This is a significant jump in recorded mortalities when compared to the past three decades of known data. While the legal harvest of brown bears has varied from year to year, in part due to changing hunting regulations, from 1973 to 2011 — which includes 34 years of open seasons — the average legal harvest of bruins was 11.3.
The 24 human-caused adult female mortalities in 2013 were focused on as an aspect of concern for a species deemed “a population of special concern” by the state in 1998, and one that DNA analysis has proven is genetically less diverse than mainland Alaska brown bears.
Also, Morton said, while the brown bear population estimate of 624 — up from the previous 250-to-300 estimate in place since 1993 — was determined by the refuge after an extensive, DNA-based, mark-recapture project conducted in 2010, that higher population estimate was essentially a snapshot in time, not one showing whether the population was stable, increasing or declining.
Morton said that a small proportion of subadult (2- to 6-year-old) females in the age distribution, as well as known low rates of yearling survivorship, suggested low recruitment into the overpopulation.
“Survivorship of adult female bears has been shown to be the primary driver of brown bear population dynamics,” Morton said. “Losing so many adult females will have immediate negative impacts on this population.”