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.”
One bear, two bear, three bear, four — for $3 million or more
That may be about to change.
In 1984, representatives of Fish and Game, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Parks Service formed the Interagency Brown Bear Study Team to address brown bear habitat concerns and collaborate on projects and research activities.
One of the group’s objectives was to conduct a census of brown bears on the Kenai. Proposals to do so have come up repeatedly over the years — and been rejected repeatedly.
Early on the study team contracted with West Inc. to come up with a census methodology that could be modified to work on the peninsula from projects done Outside.
“You’re talking about having to adapt census techniques used in other states to kind of a unique terrain and geographic situation. They did calculations and (the cost estimate) was in the millions of dollars — high millions of dollars — to do a methodology everyone agreed would be a valid sample,” Cunning said.
The price tag was deemed too high, so other approaches were taken. The group launched a pilot study using a less-expensive census technique, and has debated options for how to do the study that wouldn’t be as costly as the full-blown project would be. None of the ideas received the support of all four agencies. Without unilateral agreement and support on census methodology, there isn’t much point in doing the count, Cunning said.
“If there’s dispute — we have very complicated management on the Kenai because of the intense public uses, land uses and interests in all the different activities that go on on the Kenai that in one way or another may affect bears. So it’s very important that we have bear data that we all agree to,” Cunning said.
“State Fish and Game authority overlays all those lands. (It’s great) when all three federal land management agencies recognize that these critters don’t recognize political boundaries, they move around wherever they want. To have all three federal agencies in the state working together is something we all want to support. It is most efficient in terms of money and the best product for the resource. It’s the best product for the public,” she said.
In a recent study team meeting, the group decided to revisit the original study plan.
“With the newer methodology now, five or six years later, there was an agreement that all four agencies would put their top science people back together and see if we can’t come up with an updated study design that we all agree to. And so they’re working on that. Once they have that and they all agree to it, then the four agencies are hand in hand going to go out there and try to find the money to do it,” Cunning said.
She said the census methodology being discussed now is a less-costly version of the original proposal the study group considered, but still may cost around $3 million. Cunning said the likelihood of getting that funding will be increased with the support of all four agencies, if they all pool resources and go hunting for money together. And the timing might be right for the project, since public interest in the brown bear population on the Kenai is high.
“I would love to have the number. It would make my job much easier. And the state would love to have the number of brown bears on the Kenai,” Selinger said. “There’s a lot of value to it. It would dispel a lot of the notions about brown bears. It’s nice if we can have answers to things like that.”
Depending on how the population count comes out, it could influence a change in management practices and spur greater hunting opportunities, as many residents have called for.
“It’ll have potential ramification on the management of the brown bears, how we look at distributing the harvest tags, how many bears we’re allowing a year,” Selinger said.
Worth the price?
Still, $3 million would buy a lot of bear-resistant garbage cans and fund a significant outreach campaign to educate the public about decreasing bear attractants. That may be a better use for the money, Selinger said. As much as he’d like to have an answer when people ask how many bears there are on the peninsula, he’s hesitant to be enthusiastic about a census without knowing how valid that result would be.
Even if the census methodology is agreed to, the logistics of carrying out a brown bear count on the Kenai will be a challenge, to say the least.
“It’s going to be very difficult to get a peninsulawide population estimate of brown bears on the Kenai. I mean virtually impossible,” Selinger said.
Logistically, there’s a lot that can go wrong. He said a DNA mark-recapture study, the sort being considered for the Kenai, is a five- or six-week process in the summer where biologists divide bear habitat into cells and determine where to place counter sites within that grid. Once a spot is selected, biologists head into the field, form a brush pile, surround it with barbed wire and pour lure over it — a mixture of fermented fish and cow’s blood.
Bears are drawn in by the lure, they don’t get a food reward but as they pass the wire their hair gets caught in the barbs. Biologists check the site every seven to 10 days, collect hairs and periodically move the site within the study cell. The hair is analyzed and a DNA marker is established for each individual bear, and it’s recorded if the bear is recaptured later.
Helicopters are primarily used for access, and that can cause problems if they’re weathered in or have trouble accessing remote locations. Another issue is how to count bears around populated areas.
“What do we do around residences?” Selinger said. “We know you have brown bears here and you don’t want to be putting the lure site in somebody’s back yard. So that’s a big issue we’d have to look at. Even if we could do this in the backcountry of the Kenai and come off with a population estimate, how are we going to handle the animals that are near town? In essence, it would be extremely difficult to get a Kenaiwide population estimate. The big challenges of this are logistical, especially on the Kenai. … There are other methodologies out there that are acceptable, but again, it’s very time consuming and very labor intensive.”
Doing a census and coming up with a number that isn’t accurate could be worse than not doing a census.
“To look at it from a practical sense, if we go out there and do not do a thorough job of conducting this census and we come back with a number, that is the number that is going to be used. And that’s the number that is going to be quoted no matter how many times you say, ‘The confidence intervals were too big, we violated assumptions while we were out there doing the census,’” Selinger said. “You can write all that in and the scientific community will look at it and say one thing or another, but the average person is going to say, if your population estimate came out to 650 bears, plus or minus 150, they don’t realize that that population is between 500 and 800 bears. They say, ‘Oh, there’s 650 bears on the Kenai.’”
No matter how carefully the study is conducted, it won’t result in a simple, accurate population number. It will result in a population estimate — 500 bears, for example — with a confidence interval, or margin of error, around that number to account for how accurate the study is expected to be. If the confidence interval is 15 percent, that would mean the population could be anywhere from 510 to 575. And the estimate range is only accurate for the time the census is done.
“That’s just one snapshot in time. That’s telling you at the time you did your census this is how many bears you estimate to be on the Kenai. It doesn’t take into account two years from now. What you’d want, ideally, as a biologist, is you’d want periodic censuses every four to five years that were very precise,” Selinger said.
That’s unlikely to happen.
“We don’t do them, normally,” Cunning said. “There are certain critters that are easier to count than others. You can go out and do a survey or census information in the dead of winter on moose because they stand out on the snow. … But brown bears in densely wooded areas are a little tough to count.”
There are limits to what a census would tell biologists about the brown bear population. The hair analyses would indicate the number and gender of bears marked, but that, alone, doesn’t give much indication of bear population health.
“You could have a population on the Kenai of, say, 200 or 300 bears, and they can be very healthy. And you can have a population of 600 brown bears on the Kenai and they can be in trouble. If you had, for example, 1,000 bears on the Kenai, but all of them are old males, your population isn’t going to be around for very long. There’s more to it than just the number,” Selinger said.
Demographic information gives biologists a better idea of the health and trends of a wildlife population. That’s the type of monitoring Fish and Game already is doing on the Kenai.
“We have mechanisms for assessing that,” Cunning said. “Populations of critters can change their movements based on a lot of factors besides just their population level — changes in the different species and timings of the fish runs, changes in public activity, changes in our berry crop. There are a lot of changes in movement that occur for a variety of reasons that are not necessarily associated with the population. That’s what our biologists do is pay attention to all those factors.”
Selinger said biologists track the age of first reproduction, average number of cubs per litter, the survivability at different age classes for the population, with a particular focus on female survivability.
“When you do a census you essentially get a number, you get X number of bears out there. When you focus with population demographics you get a better look into the health or the viability of the population,” Selinger said. “Ideally, biologists would want both numbers. With our other work going on, if you could compliment the two, yeah, obviously, you’d have a really interesting database. But then again, it’s going to be very costly.”
That’s the question for Selinger, would a census be time and money well spent? Maybe. Or maybe those resources could go further in other areas.
“Whether or not it’s practical. Whether or not there’s money to do it. What are we going to get out of it? Because we don’t want to just go out and spend a bunch of money just to spend money, we want good data when we go and do our censuses and collect the information. Especially with that much of an investment. The trade-off is you look at it and go, ‘What could we do with that much money for the bear population to understand it better?’” Selinger said.
Expanding the “bear-aware” community education program would go a long way toward reducing human-bear interactions, he said, including making available more bear-resistant trash cans, upgrading garbage transfer facilities, encouraging livestock owners to install electric fencing and educating residents about the importance of decreasing bear attractants, like garbage, pet food, bird feeders and fish waste.
“There’s a lot of things you can potentially do with that money that would benefit the bear population, at least people’s understanding of it. I think one of the biggest things on the Kenai is getting people aware of what they can do to decrease attractants, which will decrease the number of bears that set up residence right around where people live,” Selinger said.
Whether or not the Interagency Brown Bear Study Team comes to an agreement on a census methodology and secures funding for it, Selinger said he’s still hoping to educate residents about the department’s brown bear management strategy, even if there isn’t a hard-and-fast population number he can give for it.
“Please feel free to call me and I’ll discuss it with you. We may not agree, but at least you’ll know what the real scoop is relative to how we’re looking at the bear population and what we’re doing with it,” he said.