There was no argument among members of a task force plotting brown bear conservation strategy over the importance of a brown bear travel corridor at the west end of Skilak Lake.
The disagreement during Monday's meeting of the Kenai Brown Bear Stakeholders Group was over how much of that area should be reserved for the bears.
Gino Del Frate, a wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Homer, rated that area as the top priority among a half dozen major bear corridors on the Kenai Peninsula. Numerous bears come there to feed on salmon in the Killey and Kenai rivers, he said. Human development encroaches all around -- the Sterling Highway, the campgrounds on Skilak Lake, the communities of Sterling and Funny River.
"It's the top priority because it's the most at risk," he said.
The critical land lies mostly within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Del Frate said bears use an area from the outlet of the lake to the confluence with the Killey and the boundary between the refuge and private lands -- an area spanning three or four miles of the Kenai River.
Grace Merkes, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly's new representative to the stakeholder panel, took exception.
"I could agree to a mile or to some kind of area," she said, "but I can't agree to an area from the outlet of Skilak Lake to the beginning of private land. That's a lot of land for the bears."
During a break, Merkes said she agrees the outlet to the lake is heavily used by bears. But once it is classified as important bear habitat, she said, she thinks state and federal managers will close it to hunting and fishing.
"Do we close it to people because of the bears or do we allow the bears to move back?" she asked.
Merkes said she believes bears will steer clear if the area is heavily used by people.
She said she has no objection to closing remote areas such as the Killey River or the south side of Skilak Lake. But accessible areas should remain open to the public use, and new regulations are closing them off.
"Probably soon, people aren't going to be able to enjoy outdoor Alaska," she said.
Del Frate said bears use the whole area between the lake and the mouth of the Killey.
"I'd be reluctant to narrow that to one mile and say they'd go through that," he said.
Stakeholders agreed on the importance of preserving key bear corridors, and Del Frate listed the priorities. Second after the corridor around the outlet to Skilak Lake is the route around the outlet to Tustumena Lake, he said. Third is a route across the Fox River valley. Others bear corridors run by Kenai Lake, through mountain passes in Cooper Landing and down the Russian and Resurrection river drainages.
Del Frate began, "That kind of covers ...,"
"... The whole peninsula," Merkes finished.
The panel meets March 7 in Kenai to review a draft list of recommendations for conserving the bears. Stakeholders asked for more information then to better define important brown bear corridors. Steve Stringham, a private biologist with years of experience studying brown bears, said he hopes they find ways to protect them.
"The travel zones are critical, as are the feeding areas," he said.
He said the goal is to find ways to preserve peninsula brown bears while the population is healthy, and head off a listing under the Endangered Species Act. A threatened or endangered listing could bring severe restrictions on human activity and development.
With a healthy bear population, he said, there are lots of options.
"The smaller the population gets, the fewer options we have," he said.
If development closes the corridors by Skilak and Tustumena lakes, that cuts the brown bear population into three isolated segments.
"You could end up with three threatened populations instead of one healthy one," he said.
Other observers questioned the stakeholders' purpose.
"I believe this group has more potential for limiting the people of the Kenai Peninsula Borough to live, enjoy, use and develop the land here than anything we've seen," said former assembly member Debra Holle, who lives in the Tustumena area. "I believe this group wants to limit access to federal and state lands."
Stakeholder recommendations could influence what land the borough can choose to fulfill its land entitlement from the state, she said. She questioned whether stakeholders would recommend commercial fishing cuts to save salmon for bears. Holle said agency representatives and residents of areas outside the peninsula dominate the stakeholders, and she objected to giving them so much influence over the peninsula and its residents.
At the other end of the spectrum, Soldotna's Peggy Mullen praised stakeholders' efforts and urged them to err on the side of conservation. She recalled seeing a mounted moose head over the door of a Copenhagen, Denmark, pub.
"People said, 'We used to have moose here. We don't anymore,'" she said. "... Hopefully, a few generations away, we won't have a brown bear head over the door of a pub and say, 'We used to have those here.'"
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