In late October, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shut down brown bear hunting season on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, inaccurately insinuating that the Alaska Board of Game and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game are mismanaging brown bears on the Kenai Peninsula and putting their long-term conservation at risk. This is simply not true.
At its meeting in Kenai last spring, the board heard from the department that brown bear numbers on the Kenai Peninsula have increased substantially over the past decade and are continuing to increase. They also heard testimony from many people, a majority of whom stated that this is causing increased human-bear interactions and safety concerns. Indeed, there have been some serious bear encounters on the Peninsula and the number of bears killed in defense of life and property is significant.
In response, the board chose to temporarily increase brown bear harvest opportunities for a year or two to stabilize bear numbers and allow legal harvest of the bears most likely to be causing problems. Using an economic analogy, this could be viewed as a “market correction” in bear numbers. The department reviewed the board’s proposed approach at the meeting, and concurred that this short-term strategy would have no adverse impact on long-term viability of the brown bear population. If there were concerns, the department would have stepped in to prevent overharvest. Also, the department retains the authority to restrict hunting at any time if our biologists believe it is necessary to ensure conservation. Simply put, our professional biologists agree that there is no long-term conservation concern with the number of bears killed this year.
The department is constitutionally bound to actively manage our wildlife to provide for the maximum benefit to Alaskans while maintaining sustainability. 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.
In contrast, national refuge and park lands within Alaska are managed using a passive management approach. Under the federal system, “natural diversity” is paramount and wildlife numbers are allowed to fluctuate widely. To give you a real life example of this management philosophy put into practice, the Fish and Wildlife Service considers it acceptable for an entire caribou herd to die out on Unimak Island, eliminating an important food source for subsistence users. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s mandates don’t allow for populations to disappear in the name of “natural diversity.”
Returning to the Kenai brown bear, under this passive management philosophy, no human influence can be allowed on wildlife that would alter their natural variation. Thus, the state’s strategy to address human-wildlife conflicts and provide harvest opportunity while reducing or stabilizing bear numbers is unacceptable to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Interestingly, despite their stated conservation concerns, federally managed brown bear hunts remain open on the refuge. Only state-managed hunting opportunities have been foreclosed.
Alaskans should be concerned with a movement toward passive management. Alaskans depend on the state to actively manage its wildlife and habitats for harvest opportunities to feed their families and for economic opportunity. Providing for these uses requires active, engaged management that recognizes humans as a part of the ecosystem. This is especially critical in our rural areas where wildlife provides for subsistence, and where we have been strongly encouraged by residents to actively manage Alaska’s wildlife. It is why the department conducts programs such as habitat enhancement, predation control and harvest management. Interestingly, these tools are all allowed for use under existing federal policies and are commonly used on federally managed lands in the Lower 48 but go largely unused in Alaska.
Understanding that the current Kenai brown bear hunting regulations are intended as a temporary “market adjustment,” the department and board are developing a long-term harvest strategy for brown bears. This strategy will ensure the long-term conservation of brown bears in a manner that addresses human and ecosystem considerations on the Kenai Peninsula as well as meeting the needs of its residents.
Ted Spraker is chair of the Alaska Board of Game. Doug Vincent-Lang is director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.