Bear management report urges special zones for viewing, hunting

Posted: Wednesday, July 05, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- Tourists looking for brown bears on Admiralty, Baranof and Chichagof islands would have to change their expectations about up-close wildlife experiences under a policy recommended by an advisory group.

''If you're trying to be respectful to the animal, you don't get right on its back,'' said Greg Streveler, a Board of Game member from Gustavus who chaired the bear management advisory team.

The group was composed of guides, hunters, conservationists, tourism industry representatives, staff from Huna Totem Corp., the Native village corporation for Hoonah, and state and federal managers.

The report released Monday suggests special zones where bear-viewers would be kept some distance away from the animals, and hunting would be allowed.

The islands' famed bears aren't being overharvested, state biologists said. The estimated population is 4,200 bears, far more than in all of the Lower 48, but the animals face growing pressure from hunters and tourists.

About 140 brown bears on the islands are killed by people each year, mostly by nonresident hunters. Southeast hunters take less than a fifth, the report said.

A major issue was the conflict between people who want to look at bears and people who want to hunt them. Some group members wanted more viewing areas similar to Admiralty Island's Pack Creek, where hunting is forbidden.

But the report suggests creating Brown Bear Special Use Zones, in which viewers are kept far enough away from bears so the animals don't become habituated to humans.

Bob Engelbrecht, who represented the Alaska Visitors Association on the group, endorsed the zones as a more natural and appropriate way for people to view bears as part of the ecosystem.

Ron Somerville, a group member representing the Territorial Sportsmen, also liked the zones. He said the outdoors group didn't want more areas closed to hunting. When bears become so habituated to people that viewers give bears individual names, the area ends up managed for bear-viewing and hunting is excluded, he said.

The group agreed with the state's current guideline of annual human-caused bear deaths of 4 percent. But the deaths of females should be capped at 1.5 percent to preserve reproductive capacity, the report recommended.

The group favored a conservative harvest of female bears to avoid a lot of invasive regulations, Streveler said.

But if more restrictions are needed, the state should reduce guided hunts first, before reducing seasons or limiting the number of hunters, the report recommended.

''We wanted to give the resident kind of a leg up when it comes to restrictions,'' Somerville said.

The group also wants the U.S. Forest Service to freeze the number of hunting guides, currently at 38, and reduce it by half through attrition.

Paul Johnson, representing two guide associations on the group, said a cap on guides would benefit the industry and give residents a priority.

The report also calls for the Forest Service -- which regulates land use and hunting guides on the islands -- to set conservative figures for the number of people who can use each area of the islands.

The Forest Service is working on a study of how to allocate shore-based recreational use on the Admiralty, Baranof and Chichagof islands and other parts of the Tongass National Forest.

The state Board of Game is expected to decide whether to adopt the recommendations as policy at its Juneau meeting in November. But key pieces of the plan would need agreement from the Forest Service.

The bear group's recommendations will be included in the recreational-use analysis, said Marti Marshall, recreation specialist for the Tongass National Forest.

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