Judging by the extensive media coverage of bear maulings and other close encounters this summer, one might imagine that the brown bear population on the Kenai Peninsula is thriving and is posing a greater risk to humans than ever before.
Seeming to support those assumptions, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game reports that at least 30 “human-caused mortalities” of brown bears have occurred in 2008. Most of those deaths were termed “defense of life and property” killings. Only one was attributed to hunting.
The number of brown bears killed by people this year is about the same as the totals for 2007 and 2006, but generally higher than in previous years. In the 1990s, for example, according to Fish and Game figures, the number of nonhunting brown bear deaths averaged only 6.5 per year.
As a result of these increasing bear-human conflicts, some people believe the peninsula’s brown bear population is too large and needs to be reduced. Even if they are correct, however, actually making a dent in the bear population won’t be easy.
The effort is hindered by two factors: a complicated set of rules for establishing hunting seasons, and the fact that a census of brown bears on the Kenai Peninsula has never been done.
Hunters probably won’t even get a chance at a season this fall. According to Jeff Selinger, Fish and Game area wildlife biologist, this year’s fall brown bear hunt will be canceled for game management units 7 and 15, the eastern and western halves of the peninsula, respectively.
The move would mark the fourth consecutive cancellation by the department. The last full peninsula fall season occurred in 2001 and the season in 2004 lasted only two days.
Don’t count on it
Although Fish and Game’s own Web site lists the Kenai Peninsula brown bear as a “species of special concern” in its endangered species section, some department biologists believe the brown bear population is strong.
The problem lies in proving it.
Brown bear populations have been estimated based on data from other similar areas, but no actual census has been done because of the logistical difficulties and the expense, Selinger said.
What’s left is mostly a gut instinct based on available information.
“I have no doubt that there’s more. I can’t prove it scientifically, but all the anecdotal information — and it’s plentiful — is there’s more brown bears on the Kenai than there were 10 years ago,” Selinger said.
Longtime peninsula guide and lifelong Alaskan Laine Lahndt agrees.
“I feel that there’s more here than when I was a kid growing up here,” said Lahndt, whose grandparents settled near Kasilof in the 1930s. “My brother and I ran all over Kasilof and never saw a brown bear or even saw a brown bear track. Now I routinely see bears, and we’re consistently seeing tracks up and down our road.
“There’s just a lot more bears than there used to be.”
Although he sympathizes with those who are worried about bears in urban areas, Lahndt, who runs a winter trapline on Tustumena Lake and has been involved in big-game guiding for nearly 30 years, is more concerned about rising brown bear numbers for another reason: their skillful predation on moose calves.
On the Kenai, brown bears, black bears and wolves prey upon moose calves. Lahndt said brown bears do the most damage, and, if their population is not controlled, peninsula residents are likely to note a significant decline in the moose population in the next few years.
Of bear-human conflicts, he said, “A bear lives by his nose. So we can learn to control and minimize those problems.”
Of bear-moose conflicts: “Predation is one of the things that bothers me most.”
Despite the fact that humans have killed 90 brown bears in just the last three years, “We’re not seeing any indication of the bear population declining.”
Hunting by the numbers
Lahndt believes that local biologists have their hands tied when it comes to predator control.
Although very little is written in stone, allowing for more harvesting of brown bears is problematic, according to Selinger.
In March 2007, the state Board of Game recommended that human-caused mortalities in units 7 and 15 be limited to 20 brown bears (no more than eight of them being females), up from a previous recommendation of 14 brown bears (no more than six of them being females). Selinger said he made the board’s recommendation his objective in managing bears.
Consequently, the department determined to hold a drawing and issue 25 hunting permits this year — up from 18 last year — in an attempt to meet that objective. The brown bear season would be broken into two parts, a fall hunt scheduled for October and November and a spring hunt scheduled for May.
The fall/spring hunting calendar overlaps the calendar for the Fish and Game harvest objective. As a result, the high number of 2008 human-caused mortalities could shut down the fall portion of the season, but not the spring portion. Permit holders who were denied a hunting opportunity this fall could hunt next spring.
However, if the department determines the brown bear population can sustain a fall hunt, despite a high number of human-caused mortalities, it can decide to allow a hunt, regardless — or at least a limited version of one.
Because of these policies, and a concern over the escalating numbers of defense of life and property shootings, Selinger said the department has issued nearly half of its permits for the more heavily human-populated western side of the peninsula.
“I think we can afford to harvest more bears around where people live,” he said. “But it’s not going to get us where we want to go with fewer bears running around town and causing problems and breaking into things.
“We’ve got all the private property issues. We’ve got no hunting or discharge of firearms in city limits, where a lot of the problems are occurring. And a majority of the bears causing problems in our urban areas are sows with offspring or sub¬¬adult bears. And none of those are targeted for hunting.”
Since brown bears are rarely harvested for their meat, most hunters are uninterested in younger, smaller bears. They want trophies.
“They want that 10-footer,” Selinger said.
The human factor
Urban areas pose the biggest problem because some bears are drawn in from the wilderness in search of easy spoils. According to Selinger, as long as food is readily available where people are, bears will continue their negative interactions with humans.
Larry Lewis, a Fish and Game wildlife technician, said bears, in general, find food through a process called “site habituation.” Bears find a reliable source of food in a particular area and come to associate that area with being fed. As a result, they return to that area again and again.
The habituation process can even be generational, Lewis said, as sows take their cubs to a food source, teaching the younger bears about the reliable site, and so the number of bears coming to a productive site tends to rise over time.
The Russian River confluence is a prime example of this process, Selinger said.
“In my mind, that’s a human-generated food source,” he said.
In addition to the enhanced runs of salmon as an attractant, bears flock to the Russian for the discarded carcasses, stringers of fresh sockeyes and food in backpacks — in addition to all the grills and coolers and picnic tables of food available in nearby campgrounds.
When the pickings are so easy, Lewis said, the bears can hardly stay away, despite the fact that it is “not a good survival strategy” for a wild animal to want to be around humans.
“A bear’s whole drive in the summer is to obtain and put on as much fat as it can, and to obtain their food with as little effort as they need to put into it, so they’re not burning off what they’re putting in,” Selinger said.
Consequently, until people begin to remove the incentives that draw bears near, bears will continue to pose a problem, Selinger said. “Nuisance bears” can be deterred by fairly simple measures, such as keeping garbage indoors, tightly securing any outdoor freezers or erecting electric-wire fences around chicken or pig pens.
People can’t prevent bears from occasionally wandering through, he said, but they can prevent them from having any reason to return or to stay.