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State, Feds spar over brown bear closure on the refuge

Posted: November 26, 2013 - 9:27pm
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File photo/Peninsula Clarion  In this August 10, 2008 two observers watch a young brown bear fishing for red salmon near the Russian River falls.
File photo/Peninsula Clarion In this August 10, 2008 two observers watch a young brown bear fishing for red salmon near the Russian River falls.

State and federal officials squared off Monday during a public hearing on the late October closure of Kenai National Wildlife Refuge land to sport hunting for brown bear.

An audience of about 50 gathered to hear the refuge representatives give the U.S. Fish and Wildlife rationale for the closure and weigh in to support either the state’s opposition to the maneuver or the federal position on its necessity.

Between the dueling positions several basic assumptions are in question including estimations of the number of brown bears on the peninsula, about 624 according to Fish and Wildlife estimations or more than 1,000 according to some opponents of federal counts, safe levels of harvest of those bears and the most effective philosophy of wildlife population management.

Before the public was given a chance to weigh in, John Morton, supervisory fish and wildlife biologist on the refuge, gave a presentation detailing the federal position on the closure.

He emphasized the importance of maintaining the natural diversity of wildlife on the refuge and the priorities of federal managers who work to ensure both consumptive — such as hunting and trapping — and non-consumptive — such as wildlife viewing and photography — uses for residents and visitors on the Kenai Peninsula.

Morton also presented several graphs estimating the population of the brown bears based on changes to hunting regulations made during the 2013 Board of Game meeting in Kenai.

Calling the new harvest regulations “unprecedented,” Morton showed projections of the brown bear population prior to 2013 which showed it to be growing by 3 percent a year and post-regulatory changes that estimated a drop in the number of bears by 10 percent a year if the number of bears taken during the 2013 season were to be repeated each year.

According to refuge estimates, 38 bears were killed on federal lands with an additional 32 being killed on non-refuge land.

Previous estimates of those kills included 43 bears that were killed during the spring and fall hunting seasons and an additional 23 killed through defense of life and property takings, illegal takings, kills of problem bears and vehicle collisions — or more than 10 percent of the total population estimate of Kenai Peninsula brown bears.

The Kenai brown bears were designated by the state as a “population of special concern” from 1998-2010.

While several longtime residents disputed the refuge’s estimate of 250-300 brown bears during that time period, no other population estimate was available until federal managers released the results of a 2010 study that doubled the population estimate.

Richard Link, a central peninsula resident who lives about five miles south of Soldotna, said he had no problems with bears for the first 23 years he lived in the area.

Then, nine years ago, things changed. Bears came onto his property and got into his chicken coop and harassed his other animals.

“Then more bears started showing up,” Link said. “Finally I had enough. Three years ago I started shooting bears.”

Since 2012, Link said he had killed five bears in defense of life or property, or DLP situations; each shot from his porch.

Ted Spraker, chairman of the Board of Game, said the vast majority of testimony given to the state board on Kenai Peninsula brown bears, came from residents concerned about increased interaction with the bears.

Link said he had seen as many as nine different bears in a year.

“I was hoping, with this hunting season, to curtail the numbers,” he said. “I let two bears go last fall because I thought the hunting season would take care of it. Now the refuge is going to shut this down. I can assure you that there will not be any bears on my property that live. I will kill every single one of them. I’ve got grandkids around and I’m not going to tolerate having those bears and tell my kids that they can’t go out and play on the lawn because of bears around.”

Some residents disputed the new, higher population estimate as being too conservative.

Several mentioned data from the refuge’s recently released population estimate that showed just five of the estimated 30 tagged bears on the peninsula to have been seen and counted during the federal study.

When you extrapolate the percentage of tagged bears counted in the study relative to the percentage of tagged bears known to be present on the refuge, said Bill Iverson, president of the Alaska Outdoor Council, the population of brown bears on the Kenai Peninsula could be more than 1,400.

It was a common argument among critics of the federal closure of the 2013 hunt.

Morton said those numbers were inaccurate.

The problem, he said, was that all of the collared bears were sows of a certain age. Collared sows and ones with litters of cubs are the least likely to visit trap sites like the ones the refuge used to estimate the bear population.

Refuge managers took into account the number of collared bears that were unlikely to have been drawn to the trap sites and used that to inflate their estimate of bears on the peninsula, he said.

The difference in numbers resonated differently with those in attendance.

Some said the chance of human and bear interactions affected them negatively.

Joe Hardy, who lives near Funny River Road, said it was not possible to go for a walk in the neighborhood without carrying a firearm.

Others, like Brenda Trefon, a member of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, said her family and tribe had coexisted peacefully with the bears for hundreds of years.

State managers did not dispute the idea that the level of brown bear harvest in 2013 was not sustainable.

Doug Vincent-Lang, acting director of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Division of Wildlife Conservation, said the harvest of brown bear approved by the state’s Board of Game was never meant to be sustainable.

“It was not the intent of the board for the department to maintain harvest at this level indefinitely,” Vincent-Lang said. “Instead, these harvests were meant to be temporary to address increased human wildlife contacts by taking those bears most likely to cause difficulties.”

The state, he said, wanted to provide expanded harvest opportunity to reduce or stabilize the bear numbers.

Fish and Game biologists reviewed the Board of Game’s strategy to liberalize the area hunt and determined there would be “no adverse impact on the long term viability of the bears,” Lang said.

The state, Lang said, was attempting to minimize negative human and bear interactions.

Andy Loranger, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Manager, said Alaska is bear country and there are ways to mitigate the risk of negative human interaction with bears without permanently damaging the bear population.

When the refuge closed brown bear hunting on refuge land, the primary cause was the number of sows, or adult females, that had been taken.

Twenty-four adult females, or about 12 percent of the independent females, were taken on the Kenai Peninsula in 2013, according to refuge data.

If harvest were to continue at that level through 2015, the population of brown bears on the Kenai Peninsula would likely drop below 500, a number Morton said was typically considered the minimum number needed to make a population evolutionarily viable.

Loranger said the chances of people and bears interacting would go up as the populations of both increased.

“There’s always some level of risk, as long as we have people and bears,” he said.

Several people weighed in on the difference in management philosophy between state and federal wildlife managers.

State managers maintained that their “active management” style is necessary to provide the maximum benefit of the state’s wildlife resources to Alaskans.

“We practice active ecosystem management which recognizes that humans are a significant part of the ecosystem with the ultimate goal of providing economic opportunity, recreational benefits and food security while keeping wildlife populations healthy,” Vincent-Lang said.

He called refuge management “passive” and said wildlife populations were allowed to fluctuate widely on federally managed lands.

“Under this passive management philosophy, no human influence can be allowed on wildlife that would alter their natural variation,” Vincent-Lang said. “Thus, the state’s strategy to address human-wildlife conflict and provide harvest opportunity while reducing or stabilizing bear numbers is unacceptable to the Fish and Wildlife Service.”

Calling the federal closure of the hunt a philosophical divide rather than a biological issue, Vincent-Lang said “The (UFWS) has embraced the philosophy that man should not intervene in natural processes including the management of wildlife despite the outcomes as prescribed by their own biological integrity policy. What we’re facing is not just a question about brown bears being managed on the Kenai Peninsula but if there will actually be management of wildlife anywhere on (UFWS) managed lands.”

Morton disagreed with the idea that Fish and Wildlife biologists deliberately managed for volatile population trends.

He said managers allow natural population trends to occur rather than manipulating wildlife populations for a specific outcome.

“We allow ecological processes to play out,” he said

By contrast, state managers are tasked with developing maximum sustained yield for harvest of wildlife, he said.

“That isn’t our mandate,” he said. “We do allow recreational opportunities to occur, in fact we encourage them. The refuge management plan does support hunting, it does support fishing but not at the expense of really trying to severely depress a population.”

Had the state hunting regime been structured in a way to allow harvest of brown bears without endangering future growth of the population, federal managers would have been inclined to allow the new changes, he said.

“If this could have been done a little bit differently, with a cap on adult females — which we consider a more responsible way to manage harvest — we probably could have had a greater harvest over a longer haul than what is being offered now,” he said. “But the problem is, the intent of this current harvest regime is actually to drive the population down and that is one we’re having a difficult time buying into.”

The refuge will accept public comment on the issue — by mail, P.O. Box 2139, Soldotna, fax, 907-262-3599 or email to kenai@fws.gov until Dec. 13.

Reach Rashah McChesney at rashah.mcchesney@peninsulaclarion.com.

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