Can healthy brown bear population still be at risk?

Where were bears' protectors during 1998 wolf transfer?

Posted: Monday, February 14, 2000

During the 1998 Alaska Fish and Game wolf transfer scam (trap and move Forty Mile wolves to the Kenai Peninsula), I strongly pointed out in public meetings and letters to newspapers, the governor, our legislators, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Alaska Department Fish and Game, and the U.S. Interior Department's top representative in Alaska that the transfer would have an adverse impact on peninsula brown bears.

I asked "Who will speak for the bears?"

The most annoying thing about the Kenai Brown Bear Stakeholder Group is the clubbiness of the entire setup. Who decided the membership? I have watched for notices that the meetings would be open to public testimony. It must be they don't want to hear from us.

Wolves and bears are predators. Predators compete for prey. Predators kill other predators when they can. Transferring wolves to the peninsula simply increased the difficulty for bears to get food.

At meetings, the local Alaska Fish and Game rep claimed that more wolves would not increase predation. I asked if they were going to brainwash the transferred wolves into being vegetarians.

From my 1998 letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service urging them to oppose the wolf transfer: "All summer long there have been broadcast and news media reports on how stressed Kenai brown bears are due to encroachment of man. The history of predators all the way up through man is predator conflict. What will USFWS do if the bears' numbers decline? Close the Russian River to sports fishing? Close all hunting on the federal lands on the peninsula? Stop all back country hiking? ..."

My efforts were in vain. 1998 was a re-election year for Gov. Tony Knowles. He was trying to curry favor with Fairbanks voters who wanted wolves gone from the Forty Mile area. No matter how bad the biology of the plan, Knowles wanted votes. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game had to get on board. Could it be that Knowles called his friend Bill Clinton to get USFWS to say yes to the wolf transfer scam?

Now comes before us the same people who did or acquiesced to the wolf transfer scam claiming they want to save the bears. They definitely don't want to hear "I told you so" from me.

William J. Phillips


Sympathy goes to Alaska Airlines;

plane crash hits close to home

It is with great sadness my feelings extend to the families of the Alaska Airline crash flight 261 who are experiencing many deep and devastating personal losses.

Although I was not personally aquainted with any of the reported passengers, I also felt much concern for our Alaska Airlines. Upon hearing the immediate news of the accident, it seemed so close to home, like a friend we have came to rely on and trust ... now dealing with catastrophic circumstances.

The excellent service, personal attention to details and high safety ratings have always made Alaska Airlines our first consideration when travel needs occur. These qualities are also shared by its sister airline, Era Aviation, who so immediately responded with generous help and kindness when our family faced a crisis for a medical emergency.

Thank you, Alaska Airlines, for your many years of service and committment to our state.

You have been there for us ... now we are there for you.

Bekkie Jackson


HEAD:To send a Letter to the Editor:

Contradiction is confusing. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game says that the Kenai Peninsula brown bear population is holding its own. It may even be growing.

Yet, the department helped initiate the stakeholder process to develop a strategy to protect the bears and keep them from being declared a "threatened" species. What gives? How can a population that is holding its own also be at such high risk that "threatened" status could even be considered in the foreseeable future?

Current health is no guarantee of future health. We see this in business all the time. Even Microsoft fights voraciously to maintain its dominance, knowing how readily it could be toppled by a surge in popularity of an alternative operating system like Linux.

Being split into a number of independent businesses also could drastically reduce Microsoft's net power and profitability. One reason that big corporations are such fierce competitors is that they can encompass more diversity to cope with unpredictable markets. Products that sell well during one year at one location may be duds in another. Profits from today's winners help compensate for today's losers. Next go-round, their positions may be reversed. Fragmentation reduces opportunities to "rob Peter to pay Paul," making it harder to rebound from losses.

Fragmentation has similar effects on a bear population -- except in this case, it is not money but animals that must move from place to place. First, if bears are depleted from one area, losses may be compensated by immigration from other areas.

Second, sites where salmon and other prime food are most abundant vary seasonally and from year to year. When travel routes are blocked, this has an impact far out of proportion to the amount of habitat lost. This impact may not be immediately apparent so long as bears can find alternative routes or destinations. But as these options are progressively eliminated, and travel across barriers trickles toward a halt, the amount of additional human impact that the population can support could decrease dramatically, even if the combined population size remains unchanged.

These issues are critical for Kenai brown bears because they are being fragmented into at least three subpopulations.

One subpopulation lives south of Lake Tustumena. Historically, bears have moved north-south at each end of the lake. But movement along the west end is probably dwindling as human activity increases and bear habitat shrinks. This subpopulation also appears to be heavily impacted by frequent contact with people throughout the region. A substantial number of brown bears are harvested each year, or killed in defense of life and property (DLP). Habitat degradation is also taking its toll from Tustumena south to Kachemak Bay.

North-south movement across the center of the Kenai Peninsula is restricted by the Sterling Highway; by development along the highway, particularly the communities of Cooper Landing, Soldotna and Kenai; and by high numbers of anglers on the Russian and upper Kenai rivers.

We and our stakeholders must depend on wildlife biologists to estimate how far habitat fragmentation can proceed without jeopardizing the population's ability to persist over the foreseeable future -- without unacceptable risk that its long-term survival will require protection as a "threatened" species.

We must all likewise depend on biologists to identify ways of maintaining adequate exchange of bears across the habitat bottlenecks at the west end of Tustumena and across the Sterling Highway.

Next, it is up to the stakeholders to identify those alternatives which are politically most acceptable.

Finally, it is up to us -- the public -- to decide whether we would rather make small sacrifices now for preventative conservation or suffer far greater sacrifices if protection as a "threatened" species is ever invoked.

Recall the recent poll showing that the vast majority of us who live on the peninsula or in Anchorage want to preserve our brown bear population in perpetuity. If the needs of the many who care about bears are put ahead of the needs of a few who don't, you can't blame the few for complaining. But majority rule is the essence of democracy.

Dr. Stephen F. Stringham is president of WildWatch Consulting and has been a Kenai Peninsula resident off and on since 1970. He was one of the first biologists to study bear and moose behavior on the peninsula and at Katmai, and one of the first three people in the world to earn a doctoral degree studying grizzly/brown bear ecology. He is writing a book on the behavior, ecology and conservation of bears.

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