Bear data could increase area hunting opportunities

For the first time in more than a decade on the Kenai Peninsula, wildlife managers have a recent brown bear population estimate to inform their game management decisions.

Ted Spraker, chairman of the Alaska Board of Game, said he suspects the new number — more than twice the old estimate — will increase hunting opportunities on the peninsula.

“This is what a lot of people have been looking for who are interested in maybe hunting brown bears on the Kenai,” Spraker said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge estimate there are 624 brown bears on the peninsula, according to a press release issued last week. 

Of the total, about 200 are adult females, 200 are adult males and 224 are cubs, according to the document.

The old estimate was 250 to 300 brown bears, said Jeff Selinger, Fish and Game Kenai-based wildlife biologist.

Currently the fall 2013 brown bear hunt is planned to be a registration hunt that is to not exceed 10 adult female brown bear deaths, Selinger said.

“But now we have this new information that came out (and) we have a Board of Game process coming forward, so all of that could potentially change,” he said.

Decisions to liberalize the brown bear hunt will solidify after the Board of Game meeting in Kenai on March 15, Selinger said.

Spraker said people will likely scrutinize the new number and say it is too low to allow an increase of brown bear hunting opportunity on the peninsula. 

But, he said, it is a good number.

“We’ve had adequate hunting seasons on brown bears with a population estimated at less than half of what we have estimated now,” he said.

Spraker said it is very difficult to kill high numbers of brown bear on the peninsula.

Results from an ongoing moose calf mortality study being conducted in Game Management Units 15A and 15C have shown that brown bears killed 35 percent of the total collared calves, said Thomas McDonough, the study’s principal investigator and a research biologist for Fish and Game, in an October interview with the Clarion.

Despite the brown bear’s role in moose calf deaths, Spraker said he does not think the new number will provoke predator control, or targeted killing.

The brown bear study field work, Refuge Manager Andy Loranger said, was completed in June 2010 — a point of frustration for Spraker. 

He said the Board of Game had to vote on several proposals without adequate data while it waited for the study’s completion.

Loranger said that is the price paid for good science.

He said biologists collected 12,000 hair samples in the field, which then were separated, catalogued and stored before being shipped to a lab in British Columbia. Once the data returned from the lab, it had to be analyzed and peer-reviewed, said Loranger.

“I think that the importance of the information justified the careful work that went into ensuring that it was as good as it could be,” he said.

Dan Schwartz is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.