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Kenai brown bear closures flout Alaska conservation values

Christine Cunningham
A brown bear on the Kenai Peninsula's Russian River. Ken Marsh / ADF&G

My concern with the recent closure of brown bear hunting on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is an extension of my concern for federal overreach that will negatively impact the future of hunting on public lands here in Alaska. My concern is also that this closure represents another act by the refuge that places the values of visitors and natural diversity beliefs above the rights of hunters to engage in otherwise legal hunting activities on public lands and above the conservation concerns expressed by state hunting regulations for a declining moose population.

The North American Model of Fish and Wildlife Conservation is how our society values, conserves and shares wild resources. The model is said to be rooted in our legal system, our political system, and our cultural will. It gives people ownership of this country’s game. Hunters maintain this right and accept the responsibility that comes with it. In that way, hunters have been a valuable partner to managers nation-wide and especially in Alaska. If the Kenai Refuge refuses conservation practices in favor of preservation principles, it would truly be a great loss to the growing number of women hunters. They bring more than just a rise in responsible outdoorsmen; they are also connecting families to nature and providing a healthy and sustainable food option.

The local concerns with the declining moose numbers on a refuge that was once famous for moose were heard by the Board of Game. It was hunters that proposed managers limit the moose harvest in order to protect the population. I was among the hunters who pleaded with Alaska’s Board of Game to do something about the increasing number of brown bear due to their impact on moose. The Board of Game listened to science and long-standing members of the community who see the issue clearly from the field -- effective habitat management and predator control are needed to conserve the moose population. As the largest landowner, the Kenai Refuge refuses both measures, ignoring the voices of the community.

The idea that the taking of 66 brown bears is “shocking” to the refuge is frankly, ridiculous. That number was not unexpected by the state and the hunt, although termed a “sport” was not about trophy hunting brown bears. It was about moose. And it was about public safety. What’s shocking is the decline in moose numbers and the refuge, by refusing to enact effective habitat management, placing the state in the untenable position of having to enact one of the only conservation measures available, which is predator control. What’s shocking is that the refuge’s actions place members of our community and visitors in greater danger of an encounter with bears habituated to close proximity to human populations.

In contrast to the state, the refuge takes actions that injure moose populations, reduce hunting opportunity, and endanger visitors. The refuge states at public meetings that habitat management in the form of controlled burns would, according to the FAA, pose a danger to homes outside of the refuge while it ignores the real danger of brown bears in close proximity to humans. The refuge refuses to enact an effective habitat management plan, pursues regulations that supersede those set by the Board of Game, applies more restrictive requirements to trappers and then harasses them with aggressive enforcement practices. Why has the Refuge become anti-hunting and trapping without provocation?

While the outdoor world embraces women hunters as the future of hunting and these women work to involve their children in nature and provide them with an understanding of sustainable food practices, the refuge appears to prefer that we watch wildlife (moose) die out of so-called natural causes that are in no way natural. Roads, trail systems, cabins, boardwalks, visitor industry, and a $10 million dollar visitor center project do not represent wilderness un-touched by humans. The cost of actions by the refuge are more human-bear conflicts, a disappearing moose population, and restrictions on the good hunting practices that were a foundation of our communities and offer a key to our future sustainability both economically and culturally.

According to hunting license information available from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the number of women who purchased hunting licenses in 2012 accounted for 20 percent of the total purchased in the state. This number represents a higher percentage of women hunters than the national average of 9 percent in 2006 and 11 percent in 2011. In 2012, 35.3 percent of participants who took a Hunter Education class were female. In a recent National Geographic article on the growing number of women hunters there was an emphasis on the role of women in household food and nutrition decisions, giving credit to the support women offer to sustainable food and agriculture initiatives, such as farmers’ markets and the alternative to the grocery store offered by hunting. The article makes an interesting point with regard to the reason why more women are becoming hunters, stating that hunting may be the next frontier for local food. On the Kenai Peninsula, moose are the best source of meat available to families and the un-checked bear population as well as the refuge’s failure to enact an effective habitat management plan, have put moose populations in danger.

There is not a conflict between hunters and non-hunters on the Refuge except for the conflict that refuge managers have invited at public meetings as a result of enacting unnecessary restrictions. The refuge has a conflict with the state and the people and resources it represents. Does the refuge really have science to back up that there is an unhealthy number of brown bears on the Peninsula because 66 bears were taken? At a public meeting on Nov. 25, the Refuge provided a presentation that mis-appropriated research by a state biologist by placing it into a computer model and called this mis-representation “science.” Does the refuge really think that fishing next to brown bears on the Russian River, defending families from bears that run up on porches in subdivisions, shooting bears to protect livestock, carrying firearms in order to hike or jog in safety, or, for some, watching a brown bear rip apart a moose calf or attack a trophy bull moose isn’t something that residents are reacting to as communities? The refuge is our back yard, not a zoo for visitors or a science experiment in natural diversity and passive management theory.

It’s disappointing to see the closure of the brown bear hunt as the most recent example of federal overreach that undermines state management, common sense, and hunting opportunities. It’s more than disappointing to see tax dollars wasted by a federal agency that disregards public testimony and the work of state biologists. It’s more than disappointing. It’s illegal.

Christine Cunningham is a lifelong Alaskan, author, and outdoor columnist living on the Kenai Peninsula.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.