In recent years, the grumbling over canceled brown bear seasons has grown as hunters complain the number of bears on the Kenai Peninsula appears to be increasing while hunting opportunities have plummeted.
Three out of the last five brown bear hunting seasons, including this year’s season, have been canceled due to nonhunting, human-caused mortalities. And while there are no hard numbers to confirm brown bear numbers are going up, anecdotal information suggests the peninsula’s brown bear population is at least holding steady if not climbing upward, said Jeff Selinger, area management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Soldotna.
However, unreported shootings coupled with a trend in higher nonhunting, human-caused bear mortalities have made bear hunting seasons less and less likely, Selinger said.
Peninsula brown bear management plans direct Fish and Game to only allow a three-year average of 20 brown bear kills a year, including no more than eight females older than a year. If, when September rolls around, the three-year average, including the current year, has surpassed or comes close to the total limit of 20, or female limit of eight, then the fall brown bear hunting season is canceled.
This year there have been 25 nonhunting, human-caused bear fatalities on the peninsula, including 9 females more than in any other year on record. The second-largest number of such fatalities occurred in 2003 with 18 deaths.
When this year’s nonhunting, human-caused mortalities were averaged with the last two years to determine whether there would be a hunting season, Fish and Game calculated a three-year average of 19 total deaths and seven female deaths.
Selinger determined the cushion between three-year average and human caused mortality limit of 20 was too small, and canceled this year’s season, which had been scheduled to open Oct. 15.
But while this year’s nonhunting, human-caused mortalities total was high, Selinger urged caution in assuming the increase should be blamed on a growth in population numbers. He said multiple factors likely are contributing to the increase, most notably the irresponsible behaviours of humans.
Fish and Game resource managers have long-warned residents and businesses that leaving food sources, such as garbage and fish and game carcasses, accessible to bears will encourage the animals to congregate around developed areas.
“You’ve got several generations that have learned to come to people for food. It’s the same old story,” Selinger said. “And so we’re getting more and more human-bear interactions.”
But while nonhunting, human-caused mortalities, such as automobile collisions and shootings made in defense of life and property, have increased in recent years, illegal and unreported bear kills have exacerbated the situation by forcing Fish and Game to be more conservative with its numbers in determining whether there should be a hunting season.
Additionally, unreported kills make it difficult to determine how bear populations are responding to current management plans and whether they should be changed, Selinger said.
“It really clouds what the appropriate action would be,” he said.
Kills may be going unreported in part by people trying to take management issues into their own hands, he said. Someone, for example, might not report a shooting in defense of life and property because they do not want to jeopardize the fall brown bear season, or may kill a bear illegally in an effort to reduce the population.
“They’re going to take matters into their own hands by golly, and they’re going to just start shooting bears because there are no moose calves or whatever reasoning they may have, but they don’t see the big picture,” Selinger said. “I know that’s going on and that’s going to have to stop if we’re going to have any kind of responsible management on bears.”
Patrice Kohl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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