Snow is falling over the last berry bushes, and cold temperatures have frozen another season's salmon carcasses under the ice. There's not much food left for bears to forage on, so most have turned in for the winter.
"On a recent telemetry flight, all of the 35 collared bears in the study are already in their dens," said Jeff Selinger, area wildlife manager with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
And as the last few bruins bury themselves to sleep away the winter weather, it becomes increasingly less likely that any more bears will be harvested in the fall portion of the Kenai Peninsula's brown bear hunt, which runs from Sept. 15 through Nov. 30.
"It goes until the end of the month," Selinger said, " but the chances of someone still getting a bear are pretty slim."
Selinger said the reason the fall hunt stays open so late is in case a few bears in poor body condition -- such as older or injured animals -- have stayed awake longer than their bruin brethren, to pack on a few last pounds.
"The bears that stay out late are often the ones the become nuisance bears, getting into freezers and garbage, so we leave it open to harvest them." Selinger said. "It's a more responsible way to manage bears, rather than allowing them to be killed in DLP (defense of life and property) shootings."
Oddly, despite this year's fall brown bear hunt being the first one to go the distance in roughly a decade, Selinger said the harvest was surprisingly low given the amount of hunter interest he believed existed.
"Since I started here back in 2002, we've only had one fall portion open, and that was for two days back in '04," he said.
After two days, the hunt was closed by emergency order to prevent an over harvest. Back then the brown bear hunt was done by registration -- rather than a drawing permit as it is currently -- and 274 hunters registered. However, the management of bruins was on a three-year average then, with a goal of annual-human-caused mortalities of no more than 20 bears, of which a maximum of eight may be female bears older than 1 year.
"This year we issued 30 permits," Selinger said. "So this decreased the likelihood of exceeding our current management objectives of not exceeding 10 females older than 1 year."
Of the 30 permits issued, only two bears were harvested, and only one of them was done so legally. Joseph Wicker of Soldotna became the center of controversy when he bagged the first bruin of the year -- a subadult male -- in front of a large crowd of wildlife watchers along the Sterling Highway on Oct. 3.
Wicker made the shot on a stretch of highway between the Russian River and the east end of Skilak Lake, which is covered by a federal regulation restricting the discharge of firearms within a quarter mile of either side of the highway. Wicker was cited for violating that restriction, and was fined for failing to have a locking tag, which is required by state law.
As to the only bear legally harvested during the fall hunt, it was also a subadult male shot east of Cooper Landing.
"It was taken up by Tern Lake the first week of November," Selinger said.
Selinger said the most surprising thing about the low hunter harvest, is that most of the permits went to local hunters.
"Of the 30 permits issued, 20 are to people living here on the Kenai Peninsula, so it's not like these things went to hunters in Anchorage or other areas who couldn't make the drive down," he said.
After the hunt ends, Selinger said he will have a clearer picture of how many permit hunters actually hunted.
"They're required to turn in their harvest report card," he said. "That's when we'll learn how many days they hunt and what their efforts were."
With the one legal harvest in the fall hunt, the one illegal harvest, the five legal harvests in the spring portion of the brown bear hunt, and the 19 other brown bears killed in either DLP shootings or Fish and Game agency euthanasia, the number of brown bears to die as a result of human-caused mortalities on the Kenai Peninsula this year is 26 bruins.
This is a stark contrast to 2008 when there were a whopping 40 brown bears that died as a result of human-caused mortalities. Of these 40 brown bears killed, 31 were DLP shootings, of which 17 were shot by members of the public.
As to the nine brown bears that died as a result of human-caused mortalities that were not related to DLP shootings, one was hit by a vehicle while crossing the road, two were killed during legal hunts, two were shot by black bear hunters who misidentified them, one was a bear euthanized after it was reported and found to be mortally injured, one was a cub euthanized after its mother was shot and a home could not be secured, and two bears were found shot dead and never reported to Fish and Game by the shooters.
Joseph Robertia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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