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.”
Morton went on to explain that using the existing data of brown bear population size and annual mortality, prior to this year the population would have increased 3 percent per year, based on a three-year trajectory. But factoring in this year’s mortalities, the trajectory now shows a 10 percent per year decline, he said.
This is at the heart of why the refuge deemed the closure necessary, according to Morton.
“Continued harvest at this level through 2015 raises the possibility of extinction over the next 25 years to 33 percent,” Morton said, “and puts the peninsulawide population — which we already know to be genetically small — below the 500-bear minimum, which is the minimum number to be evolutionary viable.”
Following the presentation, the public-comment portion of the meeting began, with nearly 30 people giving their critiques of the decision to close the hunt.
Ted Spraker, chair of the Alaska Board of Game, conceded that brown bears should be managed with females in mind, but stated that a closure after one year seemed premature, since three to five years under the current regulations would have yielded better data on whether 70 bears a year was an exception or would be the new norm.
Even with the new population estimate, if the same percentages of adult female harvest were assumed — which was 10 from a 300-bear population — than 25 adult females under the new estimate of 624 should be sustainable, he said.
“Even if it was set at 20 adult females, or 60 over 30 years, that should be a sustainable harvest,” he said.
Spraker said that, in his opinion and that of the BOG, the closure of the brown bear sport hunt on refuge lands was, “Not about managing bear, but about shaping the direction of wildlife management by this refuge.”
He cited a commonly voiced point at the meeting, that human-bear interactions were on the rise prior to this year, based on defense-of-life-and-property shootings. Several speakers gave testimony to the fact that they were fed up with living with so many bears.
However, that viewpoint contradicts statements gathered in a survey of bear-related public opinion, said Rebecca Zulueta, who in 2011 conducted research for her master’s thesis on the Kenai Peninsula’s public perception and opinion of bruins.
“Focusing on brown bears, 82 percent of respondents had a positive attitude toward them, 12 percent were neutral and 6 percent had a negative attitude,” she said, adding that this included communities with low and high rates of DLP shootings.
“In response to population size,” Zulueta added, “34 percent said the bear population was too high, while 48 percent said it was about right or too low, and 18 percent were unsure.”
Not all hunters disagreed with the refuge’s decision. Rick Johnston said that the refuge’s action was necessary and that the closure should have come even sooner than it did. He added that he hopes the refuge will consider keeping the closure in place in 2014 to mitigate the large number of bears taken from nonfederal lands — 32 in 2013.
Doug Vincent-Lang, director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, echoed Spraker’s sentiments of displeasure with the refuge’s closure, which he said, “Unnecessarily pre-empted state hunting regulations legally adopted by the Alaska Board of Game in a comprehensive process.”
He also bristled at the implication of the refuge’s standpoint that the closure was based on the long-term viability of brown bears.
“Quite an accusation in that (Fish and Game) is constitutionally required to manage populations for sustainability,” Vincent-Lang said. “In essence, the federal government is accusing us of mismanaging brown bears to an extent that we are threatening their viability and violating our Constitutional mandates. This is simply not accurate.”
Vincent-Lang said that Fish and Game and the Board of Game did not engineer the recently expanded hunting regulations for brown bear as a predator-control effort to boost moose population numbers, as is sometimes said. Fish and Game reviewed the board’s proposed approach to brown bear sport hunting harvest and agreed that expanded hunting opportunity, as a short-term strategy, would have no adverse impact on the long-term viability of the brown bear population.
“If there were concerns, (Fish and Game) would have stepped in to prevent over-harvest,” he said. “Simply put, our professional biologists agree that there is no long-term conservation concern with the number of bears killed this year.”
Vincent-Lang added that Fish and Game has not had the time to review the refuge’s population trend model in detail, due to only having seen it for the first time at a public hearing on the refuge’s hunting closure in Anchorage the previous week.
However, he said that a preliminary assessment shows reason for concern, and that models such as that presented by the refuge are only as accurate as the information put into them. Like Spraker, Vincent-Lang questioned whether the motives of the refuge, as well as the Forest Service as a whole, were rooted in an anti-hunting philosophy.
“What we are facing is not just the question of how bruins are managed on the Kenai Peninsula, but if there will actually be management of wildlife anywhere on Service-administered lands, refuge or otherwise,” he said. “Will there be active management intended for specific outcomes of sustainability and natural diversity? And will the tradition of hunting for any purpose — subsistence or otherwise — continue?”