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Kenai refuge immediately closed to brown bear hunting due to sow kills

Craig Medred
Federal biologists have issued an immediate closure of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge to brown bear hunting, calling state of Alaska directives to kill almost half of the brown bear population on the peninsula a "level of mortality (that's) not scientifically sustainable." USGS

Only days after the details emerged on how successful Alaskans have this year proven at killing Kenai Peninsula grizzly bears, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge has moved to quash hunting on a huge swath of land just south of the state's largest city.

Friday afternoon, the federal agency announced that as of midnight that day hunting for brown bears on 3,000 square miles of refuge land would be closed "pursuant to federal regulations."

At least 66 brown bears -- Alaska grizzlies -- are now known dead on the 16,000-square-mile Peninsula this year. As a Fish and Wildlife press released noted, 23 bears were shot illegally, hit by cars, killed by various agency personnel as threats to public safety, or killed in defense of life and property over the course of the summer. It is legal in Alaska to shoot a bear if it is trying to kill you or your livestock.

On top of those 23 deaths, which are near the norm for the Kenai, there have been 43 bears shot by hunters during the spring and fall hunting seasons. That number is way above the norm.

"Total mortalities now represent more than 10 percent of the best available estimate of a total Kenai Peninsula brown bear population, numbering 624 bears," a press release from the refuge said, which quoted Refuge manager Andy Loranger's observation that "this level of mortality is not scientifically sustainable."

State wildlife authorities agree. The accepted standard for sustainability of hunted grizzly bears calls for a harvest of 4 to 6 percent per year, though there are indications that if the kill of breeding female bears is closely controlled the harvest can go as high as 8 percent without a change in the population.

In the case of the Kenai, the control of sows has not been tightly controlled.

The refuge noted a "high number of reproductive-age female bears have been killed (this year).  Prior to 2013, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game limited the annual number of human-caused mortalities of adult female brown bears at 10.  At least 22 adult females, or 33 percent of all known mortalities, have been killed so far this year — more than double the previously established limits.

"Survivorship of adult female bears has been shown to be the primary driver of brown bear population dynamics. Losing so many adult female bears will have immediate negative impacts on this population," said federal biologist John Morton.

There is no argument about that, either. But a negative impact is what the state is after. The Alaska Board of Game wants to reduce the overall number of bears on the Peninsula. Board chairman Ted Spraker has suggested a population of 200 to 300 bears would be more appropriate in an area now clogged with people in the summer.

Biologists do not believe a population of 200 Kenai bears can sustain itself, but they are working to determine what a sustainable number would be. The historical population of bears on the Peninsula is unknown, but all indications are that it was significantly smaller than the population of today.

Grizzlies have thrived on the Kenai in the past decade because of protective state hunting regulations, and lots and lots of food. State efforts to put a million or more sockeye salmon up the Kenai River to satisfy spawning and angler needs every year have meant good eating for the bears.

Once considered a species of concerns because of low population numbers, the bears are now off the threatened list, but the refuge is clearly worried they could be headed back toward reclassification.

“Kenai brown bears are highly valued by the public for many reasons, and play an important ecological role,” Loranger said. “If (the high harvest is) allowed to continue this season and into the immediate future, the Service believes that this level of mortality, which includes a high rate of loss of adult female bears, will result in a substantial reduction in the Kenai Peninsula’s brown bear population. This would create a conservation concern for this population, which in turn would negatively impact hunters and many other Refuge visitors who value and enjoy viewing and photographing bears.”

The refuge covers a significant part of the west side of the Peninsula. The Chugach National Forest covers most of the east side, and much of the southern end is within Kenai Fjords National Park. The park is closed to hunting. The national forest remains open to bear hunting at this time.

The refuge says its emergency closure will last for only 30 days, but by then most bears should be safely in their dens for winter. The federal agency added that it over the winter "intends to develop and implement a longer term brown bear harvest management strategy on the Refuge," something unlikely to sit well with state officials almost constantly warring with the Feds over resource management in the 49th state.

“We do not take this closure lightly and will work with the Alaska Department of Fish & Game to develop a strategy to collaboratively manage brown bear populations that is consistent with the mandates of both agencies,” Loranger promised. But Morton didn't sound nearly so conciliatory.

"As it has in previous years, the Service envisions developing and eventually implementing harvest parameters after appropriate public input and review, in an effort to ensure that harvests remain sustainable, and which focus on adequately protecting adult female bears for the healthy reproduction of the brown bear population on the Kenai Peninsula,” he said.

State Board of Game officials contend they've spent a lot of time listening to public input, and what the public living on the Kenai wants is a smaller bear population. Everyone agrees, it's great to see a grizzly on occasion, but some of the people who live among the bears say it isn't so great to see them almost everyday (or night) because  they don't always make for the best neighbors.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com