Bear panel debates size of corridors

Posted: Wednesday, March 01, 2000

KENAI (AP) -- Just how big a corridor should be reserved for brown bears at the west end of Skilak Lake was a matter of debate as a bear task force met in Kenai this week. The panel is scheduled to review a draft list of recommendations on conserving the bears in a week.

Gino Del Frate, a wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Homer, told the Kenai Brown Bear Stakeholders Group Monday that bears use an area from the outlet of the lake to the confluence with the Killey River. The area spans three or four miles of the Kenai River and lies mostly within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

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.''

Del Frate said the Skilak area was the top priority among a half dozen major bear corridors on the Kenai Peninsula. Human development encroaches all around --the Sterling Highway, the campgrounds on Skilak Lake, the communities of Sterling and Funny River, according to Del Frate.

''It's the top priority because it's the most at risk,'' he said.

During a break, Merkes said she agreed 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, she said.

''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.

Del Frate said the second priority after the Skilak corridor is a route around the outlet to Tustumena Lake. 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.

The panel meets again Tuesday in Kenai to review a draft list of recommendations for conserving the bears.

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