From Gov. Tony Knowles' opening remarks regarding the way he was dressed to his recommendation to turn Alaska into a "Fortress of the Bears," he had the crowd gathered at the third annual Alaska Bear Festival glued to his every word.
Knowles' message was simple: bears are a part of Alaska's first permanent fund -- wildlife.
"We must know the difference between a blessing and the last rites," Knowles said following a joke pertaining to the subject during his speech. "We have given last rites to the great bear in the Lower 48 with the exception of the northern Rockies. We have been given the blessing of the great bear in Alaska."
Knowles said that the view people have had toward brown bears has changed through time, allowing Alaskans to realize the importance of the animal to Alaska and its wildlife.
"There have been times when society viewed bears as a threat, a competitor, a nuisance," he said. "But today both hunters and those who simply enjoy observing wild bears regard Alaska's brown bears, black bears and polar bears with admiration that is fitting for animals that have come to symbolize our great land."
Knowles said Alaskans are blessed with an abundance and diversity of wildlife and habitat that is unmatched anywhere in the world, adding that residents are glad to accept the moral obligation and constitutional responsibility of the protection that comes with it.
"This guarantees the use and enjoyment of those resources by this and future generations of Alaskans," Knowles said. "Indeed, Alaska's wildlife is our first permanent fund."
According to Knowles, the only way to have a successful wildlife policy to ensure it will be sustained for future generations is to base it on three fundamental principles:
n It must ensure the long-term conservation of all wildlife species and habitats;
n It must provide for the broadest range of human uses and values;
n It must be based on sound science and an accessible and responsive public process.
"Right here on the Kenai Peninsula, biologists, land and wildlife managers and local residents recently put together a very successful and important wildlife conservation plan that has significance for the entire state," Knowles said. "The Kenai Brown Bear Conservation Plan is a model for successful, practical conservation in Alaska."
Knowles said the peninsula is growing and changing fast. He pointed out that conflicts between bears and humans are increasing, often with fatal consequences for the bears.
The bear mortality rate as a result of "defense of life and property" kills was high enough in some years that hunting seasons were restricted and cut short in some cases.
"Wildlife biologists realized that if nothing changed, over time Kenai brown bear numbers would likely decline and might even become listed as a threatened species population under the federal Endangered Species Act," Knowles said. "But on the Kenai Peninsula, biologists and citizens did not put their heads in the sand.
"Instead , they embarked on a hard-working and successful effort to bring science and stakeholders together to craft a plan, based on consensus, for the long-term conservation of brown bears on the Kenai Peninsula."
Knowles said that as a supplemental to the work done by the stakeholders on the Kenai Peninsula and elsewhere, there is a booklet available to educate the public.
"The booklet 'Living in Harmony with Bears', published as a capstone to the stakeholder effort, is a wonderful and effective way to provide the public with information about bear biology and management as well as safe practices in bear country," he said. "I understand the Kenai brown bear conservation message is also being carried to the peninsula elementary schools through development of a special school district curriculum. This is a great way to give tomorrow's citizens and leaders an understanding of bears, bear conservation and safety around bears."
Knowles said that Alaska has a responsibility to its first permanent fund.
"The Tlingit have their own name for Admiralty (Island), Kootznoowoo -- Fortress of the Bears," Knowles said. "Both as a symbol and a sentinel for Alaska, bears and wildlife must be protected. We must make Alaska, in a sense, a Fortress of the Bears."
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