A Bear of a Problem

It's getting harder to spot brown bears in Katmai National Preserve, and nobody is quite sure why.

By Scott Kirkwood

If you've ever seen a stunning photograph of a brown bear gulping down an unfortunate salmon, odds are the image was captured near the southwestern coast of Alaska, in McNeil River Sanctuary or Katmai National Park & Preserve. Ask any local about the best place to experience a 1,000-pound grizzly up close and in person, and most will tell you the preserve is the place to be. Or at least it was the place to be.

With a coastal habitat that provides ideal foraging opportunities for hungry bears, and a salmon run that beckons hundreds more each summer, Katmai was set aside in 1980, “to protect habitat for high concentrations of grizzly bears,” among other reasons. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act also established an adjacent preserve, to continue the state’s rich tradition of hunting. And no one is asking that to be changed. But in recent years, the average number of grizzlies being killed under the watchful eye of the Park Service has more than doubled from seven to 17. At the same time, bear guides offering wildlife-viewing opportunities in the preserve have noticed that trips that once yielded 40-60 bear sightings now include fewer than a dozen.

“We’ve noticed a dramatic decrease in the numbers of bears in Funnel and Marine Creek,” says Derek Stonorov, a bear biologist and owner of Alaska Bear Quest, a guide service in the area. “We’ve also seen a big shift in the age and sex of the population, compared to 2000—a lot fewer big males and a big decrease in the numbers of young males. Now we’re mostly seeing mothers and cubs and young adults, and some single females. As a guide, it’s really important to me to show people a fairly representative population—mothers with cubs and some big old male bears. And that’s something we can’t do too much anymore in the preserve.”

The connection between hunting and the guides’ experience might seem obvious, but this is no simple equation. Counting grizzlies is a difficult task. And because bears often roam over hundreds of square miles in search of food, declining numbers in one small area may be no indication of the population’s general health.

Still, the anecdotal evidence is raising eyebrows. Last fall, NPCA successfully fought against the expansion of hunting on state land adjacent to the park, but that was only one small victory. For now, there is still no comprehensive management plan in place to ensure the health of the population. The only limitation on the number of bears killed is an agreement between the Park Service and a private guide who leads trips to the preserve, which caps the annual harvest to 25. And even that number conflicts with the state’s 2003 recommendation of 7-9 bears each calendar year.

In cases of hunting, the state is the first authority on such matters, until and unless their actions have an impact on the Park Service’s mission. So in light of declining numbers of bears in some spots, NPCA asked the state to consider a shorter hunting season while more data were collected, a move which the Park Service supported at the time, as reflected in comments delivered to the Alaska Board of Game: “[We are] concerned that the current trend of increasing harvest rates for brown bears in Katmai National Preserve cannot be maintained over the long term. This may lead to violation of our Congressional directive… to manage for ‘high concentrations of brown/grizzly bears and their denning areas.’ ” The Board of Game refused the initial request, so NPCA asked the Park Service to exercise its own authority, but the Park Service has refused to take any action on the matter, in spite of its earlier testimony recognizing the threat.

Most bear biologists in the region believe that the overall population is relatively healthy, and that pressure from sportfisherman in the area combined with hunting may be redistributing the bears, leading to a lower quality experience for those armed with nothing more than binoculars. Some of the most acclimated bears might have been killed, or they might have simply moved on to another part of the park—there’s no way to be sure.

For now, Alaska’s powerful hunting lobby seems interested in maintaining the status quo. Some hunters might reasonably argue that the more wildlife-viewing opportunities expand, the more people want to extend buffers around parks and sanctuaries. Still, in the end, everyone at the table supports healthy populations of brown bears in the region, and representatives from both side believe that there’s room for a healthy compromise.

“I don’t think bears on the Alaska peninsula are endangered in any way,” says Stonorov, “but this land was set aside to preserve high concentrations of brown bears, and I don’t think the Park Service is managing the land in the spirit it was intended. We just want to see the Park Service get everybody together and come up with a joint management plan. That doesn’t necessarily mean less hunting—but the times are changing and bears just have this one little corner of the world, and now seems like the time to get a handle on it.”

Scott Kirkwood

This article appears in the Winter 2008 issue.

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