Game board eases bear hunting restrictions on Seward Peninsula

Posted: Wednesday, November 07, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Alaska Board of Game has eased bear hunting regulations on the Seward Peninsula in Northwest Alaska to allow the killing of more grizzly bears.

Residents there had asked the board for help, saying they thought the bear population on the Peninsula had reached an all-time high. They said bears have been killing many moose calves, knocking down cabin doors and destroying property, ripping up four-wheeler seats and even airplanes.

''So many people are fed up,'' Nome-area state biologist Kate Persons told the board during a five-day meeting in Anchorage. ''We don't know if (this) will accomplish what we're trying to do, but I guess we're asking to give it a try. The public is begging for the opportunity.''

The board voted Monday to allow residents and nonresident hunters to take one brown bear annually. Under the old regulations hunters were permitted to kill one bear every four years, except in special subsistence areas where Alaska residents can take one bear a year for meat.

The board also voted to open the brown bear hunting season a month earlier, in August instead of September, to expand the boundaries for the special subsistence hunt and to slightly increase the number of permits allowing nonresidents to kill brown bears.

In adopting the proposals, board members said they thought bear numbers are healthy enough to withstand additional hunting. But they didn't know how many bears will be killed or whether the loosened restrictions will boost the moose population as hoped.

Biologists said the move follows a trend in Game Board actions in recent years. Despite a lack of census data by biologists, many rural Alaskans say bear populations are higher than ever. Over the past several years, the board has continually loosened bear hunting rules around the state. Hunters are already allowed to kill a bear a year in a dozen hunting units and subunits.

Persons said the relaxed bear hunting regulations have not helped moose populations to increase elsewhere. But she said the Seward Peninsula may prove different because hunters there are motivated and it's easier to find bears in the mostly open terrain.

Board members were divided over the proposal to loosen the bag limit. Ultimately they voted 4-3 in favor, with some newer members -- George Matz, Julie Maier and Ben Grussendorf -- voting no.

Some members argued that the new rules amount to predator control because they are intended to help moose populations recover. Board member Mike Fleagle of McGrath, however, called the changes an expanded hunting opportunity.

Critics of the new regulations said the state lacks sufficient data to show that bear numbers have increased. They fear the rules will lead to an overharvest of bears, which are slow to rebound because of their slow reproductive rate.

''I think we need to be very cautious,'' said John Schoen, a bear biologist and senior scientist with the Alaska Audubon Society.

Another possibility is that the measure will backfire. Hunters will need to take female bears in addition to the large male bears prized by sport hunters, Persons said. Older male bears help to regulate the population by killing younger bears. If too many big males are killed, more young bears will survive, possibly resulting in even higher moose kills, she said.

Rob Hardy, a hunting guide and treasurer of the Alaska Professional Hunters Association, said he thinks that already has happened in the Nelchina basin, a hunting unit northeast of Anchorage. In most of that unit, bear hunting rules now allow hunters to take one bear a year.

''We've turned that area into a bear nursery,'' Hardy said.

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