Decisions affecting the future of peninsula brown bears are on the horizon. The Kenai Brown Bear Stakeholder Group is in the home stretch of its winter-long task and will be meeting again Monday to review recommendations.
"Basically, they are going to be looking at an outline of their recommendations," said Cindy Loker, a wildlife planner with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Monday's meeting will be held at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center, and Loker is encouraging the public to attend and provide feedback.
Once a final draft is done, Loker said, it will be forwarded to Fish and Game Commissioner Frank Rue for implementation in May, but not before a formal 30-day public review period.
"I think the conservation strategy is very rich with information and will be a guide to land managers and land-owning groups," she said.
Loker said the group appears to be moving away from making specific recommendations and toward more general issues, such as road access into bear country.
"We spent a lot of time addressing access and roads, and we're working on a statement and recommendation that is going to be somewhat general," said group member John Schoen, senior scientist for the Alaska office of the National Audubon Society and former bear biologist for the state department of Fish and Game.
"I don't think we're going to make recommendations for implementation in site-specific areas," Schoen added. "(But) increased access to brown bear habitat is a major concern."
Schoen said most healthy bear populations are where people do not appear in high densities.
"That's a no-brainer, but that doesn't mean we have to lock up habitat, we just need to protect it," he said. "Whether you're a bird watcher, a bear watcher or a bear hunter, it's in our common interest to maintain a stable population of bears on the peninsula. And a population that is not on the threshold of being (listed as) threatened or endangered."
The ramifications of putting the Kenai Peninsula brown bears on the endangered species list would be far-reaching. Nearly every new property development, logging road and oil exploration site would have to be considered with an eye toward how it would affect brown bear habitat.
One of the areas the stakeholders have addressed, but are not likely to make specific recommendations on, is a proposed Sterling Highway bypass in Cooper Landing. The bypass would make a loop through the Juneau Creek valley just north of the Kenai River in Cooper Landing before returning to the highway. It would open up scenic vistas for development but also would invade prime brown bear habitat.
"The bear group has talked about Juneau Falls, trying to craft some kind of statement. But as you can imagine, it's been difficult," Schoen said. "The task force may avoid a very strong recommendation."
Schoen said the loop would take away an area that is heavily used by bears and sandwich it between two major highways.
"Based on my experience as a bear biologist, it would fragment the bear habitat and displace them from between the two roads," he said.
While Schoen said everyone seems to recognize that the bypass has the potential to have a significant impact on bears, he said what the group recommends remains to be seen.
"Speaking strictly on behalf of myself, I would like to see the (Department of Transportation) consult with bear biologists for their draft environmental impact statement," he said. "I would like them to consider a variety of alternatives, including enhancing the highway in its present footprint."
Rex Young, an area planner for DOT in Anchorage, said the 10-mile long bypass was first proposed about a dozen years ago for the safety of Cooper Landing residents. He said the DOT is one or two years away from finishing the environmental impact statement and is still considering other alternatives, including not building the bypass.
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