Bear-viewing advocates s ay they dodged a bullet at a recent Board of Game meeting two weeks ago in Anchorage, but something still needs to be done to fix a recent trend of declining brown bear populations around McNeil River and the Katmai National Preserve.
The board reinstated a closure to brown bear hunting in the Kamishak Special Use Area before the hunt there was allowed and approved a 10-year moratorium for proposals related to bear hunting there.
The Kamishak Special Use Area is state-owned land located south and east of the McNeil State Game Sanctuary that would have been open to hunting this fall if the board had not taken action.
In an interesting twist, the proposal that stopped the hunt was not submitted by bear-viewing or anti-hunting advocates. Instead, it was submitted by the Alaska Professional Hunters Association -- a group of Alaska hunting guides who promote ethical hunting practices.
Robert Fithian, the association’s executive director, said the group submitted the proposal for political, not biological concerns.
Opening the hunt would not have been worth the backlash from anti-hunting groups it would have received, he said.
“It’s not in the state’s best interest (to open the area to hunting),” Fithian said. “Not that there was any biological concern.”
The board agreed, saying that a limited harvest would not jeopardize the bear population in the area, but its proximity to the McNeil River Sanctuary and Katmai National Park, along with strong public opposition would “create significant problems with administering this hunt.”
The McNeil River Sanctuary has become a popular bear-viewing destination both in person and via a Web camera located at the falls and broadcast on the internet as hundreds of people each year apply for a permit to view the bears at McNeil River Falls and thousands more watch them on the Web.
Part of the strong public opposition came from state representative Paul Seaton, R-Homer, who introduced a bill that would add the Kamishak Special Use Area to the sanctuary. Seaton praised the Board’s decision then released a statement saying he wasn’t planning to pursue the bill further.
“With the favorable ruling by the board, HB 127 will no longer be pursued,” it read.
Bear-viewing advocates applauded the Board’s decision, but were disappointed with a lack of action on several other proposals aimed at limiting hunting in nearby Katmai National Preserve.
“It hasn’t gotten any better it just hasn’t gotten any worse,” said Homer bear viewing guide Chris Day.
Day and her husband Ken own Emerald Air Service and have been guiding bear viewers in the area for 13 years. Day said she has noticed a significant decline in the number of bears they see in the preserve.
Prior to the 1999 hunt, Day and her clients viewed about 60-80 bears a day. Last year, Day said that number dropped to 10 or 11 per day.
Day blames an increase in hunting pressure in the preserve as the primary reason for this decline.
The preserve is federal land, but hunting there is regulated by the state which allows an open hunt in odd years.
In 1999, 17 bears were killed in the preserve. More were taken each hunt and in 2005, 35 bears were killed in the preserve.
Hunting in the preserve may also be part of the reason the number of bears visiting the popular McNeil River has dropped, Day said.
According to the 2006 McNeil Management Report issued by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the individual hourly count in 2005 was the lowest count in the 23 years of monitoring bears at the McNeil River Falls.
Bear tagging and GPS location studies have shown that bears in the area travel freely though the park, preserve and sanctuary throughout the year.
During a 2003/2004 GPS study, one bear with three yearlings was collared on the Douglas River in the Kamishak Special Use Area. Tracking results showed it had walked through the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, parts of Katmai National Park and entered the Katmai Preserve, some 45 miles away, before turning around to head back to den up on the Douglas River.
Joe Meehan, Program Coordinator for the refuge, said it’s hard to say if bears who frequent the falls are the same bears who are hunted in the preserve, however.
He said small chum salmon runs at McNeil coupled with large runs in the Bristol Bay watershed may have simply caused the bears to migrate west in search of food.
With the McNeil chum run slowly coming back and the Bristol Bay sockeye run projected to decline over the next few years, Meehan said refuge managers are closely monitoring the falls to see if the bears come back.
“The next 2-5 years will be telling,” he said.
Until then, bear-viewing advocates are pressuring the state and federal governments to find a solution to what they see as a problem in the preserve.
Jim Stratton, Alaska Regional Director for the National Parks Conservation Association, said he hopes to get the park and state together to work cooperatively on this issue.
Until now, the park has deferred to the state to handle management issues in the preserve, and that isn’t working, he said.
“The state has had a chance to fix the problem and they chose not to,” Stratton said.
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