Plan calls for managing world's largest brown bears

Posted: Sunday, April 07, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- After 20 years of trying, the state has come up with the first comprehensive plan for managing the world's largest brown bears.

The plan makes 270 recommendations for managing the approximately 3,000 brown bears that roam the 5,000 square miles of the Kodiak archipelago, a group of three large islands and numerous smaller ones stretching southwest of Anchorage, said Larry Van Daele, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist.

Kodiak not only has the largest brown bears in the world, but has one of the densest populations. Only a few other remote areas of Alaska and Russia have similar numbers of bears.

About a year ago state officials decided to tackle bear management again, in part out of concern that conflicts were increasing between hunters hoping to bag a record bruin and non-hunters interested in bear viewing.

Fish and Game changed its approach this time. Instead of telling the interested parties it knew what was best, it asked them what they thought was needed.

Calling themselves the Citizens Advisory Council, representatives of 12 groups, met for five months. The council included state and federal wildlife officials, as well representatives for Alaska Natives, environmentalists, hunting guides, commercial fishermen, tourism, ranchers, air taxi operators and wildlife photographers.

A professional facilitator guided discussions.

The council's 270 recommendations could require changes in federal, state and local laws. Van Daele said a meeting will be held within a month to discuss implementation of the plan with the different agencies, which already are committed to supporting the plan.

Bear hunting traditionally has been a huge economic resource for Kodiak Island where food is plentiful and the bears grow big on salmon. Nonresident hunters spend between $20,000 to $23,000 per hunting trip, Van Daele said.

Hunters looking for a trophy kill find the cost worth it. Sixteen of the top 20 record holders are Kodiak bears, according to the Boone and Crockett Club. The record is a Kodiak bear killed in 1952 with a skull size of 30 3/4 inches, Van Daele said.

Bear viewing, while not generating the same big dollars yet, has gained in popularity the past decade.

''We have had a culture shift,'' Van Daele said. ''People are much more interested in looking at bears than hunting them.''

Pam Foreman, executive director of the Kodiak Island Convention and Visitors Center, said tourists increasingly are asking the same question: ''How can I see those bears?''

Last year over a three-month period approximately 10,000 non-Alaskans and 9,000 state residents visited Kodiak, Foreman said. Of those making tourism inquiries, 64 percent asked about wildlife viewing opportunities. Of those, 95 percent were interested in seeing bears.

''Fortunately the bears here in Kodiak are pretty darn well behaved. The reason they are so big is that they have so much darn food to eat. They are fat and happy,'' Van Daele said.

The plan was finalized in February, in time to be considered by the federal government in updating its management plan for the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge takes up about two-thirds of Kodiak Island.

Van Daele said the council's recommendations include keeping the annual bear harvest of approximately 160 bears the same, but reducing populations along the road system in northeast Kodiak -- where nearly all the people live -- by 10 percent.

Cattle ranchers under the plan would be allowed permits to hunt problem bears that kill livestock. Current regulations require ranchers to catch bears in the act.

Bear education for visitors and the archipelago's approximately 14,000 residents is an important component of the plan, Van Daele said.

The plan recommends that all the landfills and dumps have electric fences to keep bears out. Island residents would be educated about the proper handling of chicken pens, fish-drying sheds, food storage and pet food to minimize bear-human encounters. Outdoor recreationists would receive information on proper food handling and trash disposal. And visitors would get a crash course on keeping bears away from food and garbage.

The plan also includes educating people on bear behavior to ''dispel rumors that bears are unpredictable,'' Van Daele said.

Several council members said a key part of the plan was the finding that bear viewing and bear hunting are not natural enemies.

Council members realized from talking to each other and looking at scientific data that there was no need to shut one activity down for sake of the other.

''Kodiak has proven that the two can coexist. They happen in different seasons of the year. There's no conflict in the field between user groups,'' said Dick Rohrer, a licensed master guide who has lived on Kodiak Island for 32 years.

Hunters looking for a trophy bear will be interested in big males, not the sows with cubs that tourists view feeding at salmon streams in summer. Bear hunting is allowed in the spring and fall, Van Daele said.

The plan also asks that the refuge consider reopening O'Malley Creek from June through September allowing for guided day-use bear viewing. The area currently is closed to the public but is considered best on the island for bear viewing.

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