Hunters are enjoying another brown bear season on the Kenai Peninsula, as the fall portion of the region’s draw hunt is under way.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has not cancelled the draw hunt on the Peninsula since 2008. If the maximum number of brown bears allowed by the government agency is not harvested by Nov. 30 when the season ends, hunters with permits will be able to hunt in the spring.
This is the third year in a row the draw hunt opened as scheduled, beginning on Sept. 15.
No documented harvests have resulted from the hunt, but a total of 22 brown bears including six adult females have died of human causes since Jan. 1.
A total of 39 draw permits are available, most of which are available to residents and nonresidents. The hunts require an application fee and are awarded by lottery.
A draw hunt occurs only if there are less than 10 human-caused mortalities of adult, female brown bears from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31 of the same year.
Human-caused mortalities can include defense of life and property kills, automobile collisions, illegally-taken brown bears, hunter kills and management related deaths.
The draw hunt has been in place since 2007, and the first two years of the hunt were canceled. In 2008, Fish and Game’s limits for the harvest before cancelation were set at 20 total brown bears, or eight female bears older than 1 year killed by human causes.
By Sept. 10 of 2008 a total of 32 brown bears were documented as human-cause mortalities; the highest number ever. Hunters with permits in Game Management Unit 7 and 15 (Kenai Peninsula) were allowed to hunt in the spring.
Human-caused mortalities have stayed below the limits set by Fish and Game since, and the hunt has not been canceled.
No regulatory changes to the hunt occurred this year. There has been a recent history, however, of the department becoming more liberalistic with brown bear regulations, Jeff Selinger, area wildlife biologist with Fish and Game, said.
“Relative to when I got here in 2002, we’re much more liberal than we were back then,” he said. “We allow more opportunities to harvest bears than there ever has been. I wouldn’t say we’re lax, because we still monitor it very closely by giving out a certain number of permits.”
Of the three major hunts that Fish and Game administers draw hunts are the most restrictive, Selinger said.
The less restrictive general season harvest is the type of hunting most people are familiar with — a basic hunt where people buy a license, get tags or harvest tickets for big game, and follow the general season dates and bags limits.
Registration hunts, available to residents and nonresidents, can be limited by the amount of permits Fish and Game issues. With regulation hunts the department has more flexibility to open and close seasons at will.
Draw hunts have set dates and an application period.
“We now give out permits based upon what we believe the population of animals can sustain. Only the people who draw those permits can hunt,” he said.
It is unclear where the Peninsula brown bears are and how many brown bears there are.
Counting brown bears on the Peninsula comes with challenges. A lot of the standard methods used in other regions of the state, such as aerial flights, are not as effective, Selinger said.
“They’re based in areas that have better visibility than the Kenai,” he said. “Those survey techniques do not fit our vegetative characteristics down here. Bears are in dense cover, and aerial reconnaissance does not work well to get an accurate assessment of your bear numbers.”
The most recent and popular methodology for estimating population is a mark- and recapture-based that uses DNA analysis. Lure sites are set up with barbed wire in an attempt to collect hair samples.
In areas where people live it’s very hard and not feasible to use the technique, Selinger said.
Fish and Game’s wildlife research includes a current project concerning population demographics of Kenai brown bears. The duration of the grant project is July 1, 2008 through June 30, 2013.
A description of the project on Fish and Game’s website states that the cost of conducting a true census outweighs the benefits. Instead, the project “proposes to assess population trend through the collection of demographic information.” An understanding of the general trends within the brown bear population will enable managers to make better informed decisions on harvest programs.
The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is conducting its own study to determine population size and location. Dr. Gary C. White of Colorado State University is crunching multiple data for the refuge regarding brown bears, which includes an estimation of population perimeters.
“It should be soon that we have useable data, but we don’t have it yet,” Andy Loranger, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge manager, said.
Fish and Game opens and closes its general season based on population projections.
Last year’s draw hunt resulted in five brown bears being harvested, four of which were females, according to Fish and Game harvest statistics.
Selinger has requested an increase of permits for one of the Peninsula’s hunt areas, but the increase has not yet been OK’d.
Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at email@example.com.