Bear minimum — Board of Game sets new caps on brown bear harvest

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

Hunters on the Kenai Peninsula will have a little less opportunity to harvest brown bears following a decision from the Alaska Board of Game on March 17, but have the board’s assurance that, should the population start becoming more of a nuisance, problem bears could be converted to more huntable bears.

The Board of Game met last week in Anchorage to consider proposals for the Southcentral Region, including the Kenai Peninsula. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game requested guidance on its brown bear management strategy.

A 2010 brown bear population census more than doubled the estimate of the number of bears on the peninsula. At the board’s previous Southcentral meeting, in 2012, it liberalized brown bear hunting, in part responding to requests from the public that that the bear population be reduced. According to board Vice Chair Nate Turner, the strategy seems to have worked.

“It really rung loudly in my ears at that Kenai meeting how many people came in complaining about the bears, in their view, terrorizing the neighborhoods,” Turner said. “Didn’t hear anything about that at this meeting. (But) did hear a lot of comments about, ‘Things are better now.’”

The department has been managing hunting to limit the total number of human-caused brown bear mortalities to 70 per year, with no more than 17 adult females. Jeff Selinger, Kenai area management biologist for Fish and Game, told the board the department would like to lower those numbers to 40 total bears per year, and no more than eight adult females, but with the flexibility to liberalize hunting opportunities if bears start becoming more of a problem. For instance, if there’s an uptick in defense of life and property shootings.

“If all of a sudden we have five or six DLPs next year, where we only had two DLPs this year, to me that would be more of a trigger, than just what the number of adult females are, to say we need to increase opportunity again,” Selinger said. “We believe we knocked the population down over the last few years. And what we proposed here is our best estimate of what it would take to stabilize the population.”

The board, though, wanted a higher cap than 40 total brown bears and eight adult females per year, and ended up settling on a range of 50 to 60 total brown bears a year, with no more than eight to 12 being adult females, split between a spring and fall harvest.

Those caps are a direction to the department, rather than an actual regulation, so the department still has flexibility to modify the hunting season and harvest limits as needed. Since there aren’t regulatory harvest numbers, the board also gave clear direction that it expects the department not to skimp on its suggested harvest range.

But Fish and Game only has jurisdiction over state lands. Managers of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge would like to see brown bear numbers increase a bit, and expressed concern over the 70 total, and 24 adult female human-caused brown bear mortalities in 2013. The refuge was closed to brown bear hunting at the end of the 2013 season, and again starting Sept. 1, 2014, and remains closed through May 31 of this year, a decision that rankled board members, including Turner.

“It seems like every step we make, when it gets disrupted by an external process you never get to see the actual, measured results of what the outcome was. And that creates a tremendous amount of instability in our management efforts,” he said.

The refuge has recommended that Fish and Game manage brown bear hunting to a limit of 30 total bears per year and five adult females. Board Chair Ted Spraker, of Soldotna, is hoping the board’s new harvest range will be palatable to the refuge so hunters can access bears on state and federal lands this season.

“I’m hoping that they allow the state to manage brown bears on the Kenai, and recognize the public on the Kenai, what they’re telling us, and telling the department, and they open the refuge,” Spraker said.

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