The draft Kenai Peninsula Brown Bear Conservation Strategy is up for public review, and education is a key element of the plan.
John Schoen, senior Alaska scientist for the National Audubon Society and a member of the stakeholder panel that wrote the draft, said public awareness of how to coexist with bears is essential to any conservation plan.
"We need to work with everyone throughout the peninsula, long-term residents as well as visitors, about issues like garbage -- how to keep a clean residence or a clean camp," he said. "Conditioning bears to garbage is a huge issue."
Dennis Smith, dispatcher for Peninsula Sanitation, agreed. He said if people disposed of their garbage properly, most of the peninsula's brown bear problems would disappear.
"In Ninilchik, we've seen whole totes of halibut carcasses on the ground," he said. "In Nikiski, we've seen salmon carcasses."
Bear problems at the solid waste transfer sites Peninsula Sanitation operates for the Kenai Peninsula Borough are no coincidence, he said. About three years ago, a brown bear charged a state Fish and Wildlife Protection trooper at the transfer site in Cooper Landing. The trooper shot the bear dead.
State biologists believe the peninsula's brown bear population is stable or even increasing. However, they fear that human development is altering bear habitat, and human encroachment is increasing the number of bears shot in defense of life or property.
Last year, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the borough and the U.S. Interior Department assembled the stakeholder panel to recommend ways to conserve peninsula brown bears before the population is in trouble. The panel includes representatives of landowners, Native interests, sportsmen, tourism-related businesses, industry, environmental groups and state and federal agencies.
Schoen said public education is one thrust of the draft plan. The other is a series of recommendations that recognize the importance of protecting important bear habitat.
Panelist Kirk McGee, vice president of real estate for Cook Inlet Region Inc., said a prime accomplishment was simply raising each participant's awareness of the issues. He said the plan makes sound recommendations agreed upon by a broad range of interest groups.
"Folks in the agencies and landowners probably want to give it serious consideration," he said. "Whether it's successful or not depends on how folks manage their lands. For the agencies, it's, 'Don't put campgrounds where you have a lot of bear activity.' For the borough, probably they ought to give some serious consideration to a garbage ordinance."
However, there was no consensus for a recommendation that the borough adopt a garbage ordinance, and that is not part of the plan. McGee said some panelists worried about enforcement and the cost of bear-proof containers.
Schoen said the most significant map stakeholders saw during the negotiations plotted sites where brown bears have been shot in defense of life or property.
"That was a band along the Sterling Highway -- the developed corridor where the people are," he said.
Most of the shootings were garbage-related, he said.
"A lot of our bear problems in recent times have been caused by problems in people's yards -- garbage, livestock, poultry, dog food," said Gino Del Frate, assistant area biologist for the state Division of Wildlife Conservation in Homer. "There's a lot of people who hoard their garbage. They have two, three, four, or five months of garbage piled up."
When the bears come, residents complain to Del Frate.
"You say, 'What have you done about the garbage?' They say, 'Nothing,'" he said.
The draft conservation strategy recommends that resource agencies work together with education and public relations specialists to develop a broad public-education campaign.
Jonne Slemons, project manager for the Division of Wildlife Conservation, said she wished the panel had recommended a borough ordinance to require bear-proof trash containers. However, Fish and Game is pleased with the process, she said, because it involved the public and the state realizes that no plan can succeed without public support.
Schoen said he would have liked recommendations for stronger conservation measures.
"But I'm satisfied. It was a compromise," he said. "There were 13 stakeholders. I bet there are 13 ideas of how this plan could have been made better. I think we had a good start. I'd emphasize that this is a beginning."
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game will accept public comments on the plan until May 16, Del Frate said. Copies are available at Fish and Game offices in Soldotna and Homer, at peninsula public libraries, and on the state Division of Wildlife Conservation home page on the Internet.
Public meetings on the plan last week in Kenai, Cooper Landing and Moose Pass were sparsely attended.
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