Bear tales

Posted: Monday, July 03, 2000

Human kills of brown bears on Admiralty, Baranof and Chichagof islands should be capped at current levels, as should the number of hunting guides, says a group of citizens and agency officials in a report released today.

The islands' bear populations aren't in danger, state biologists said, but they face growing pressure from hunters and tourists.

``Everybody that spends any time in Southeast Alaska notices that in the last five or 10 years any bay you used to be able to get away to has someone doing something in them,'' and they're usually not locals, said Greg Streveler, a Board of Game member from Gustavus who chaired the bear management group.

The consensus recommendations of the management advisory team -- composed of guides, hunters, conservationists, tourism industry figures, Huna Totem Corp. staff, and state and federal managers -- will go to the state Board of Game.

The board, meeting in Juneau in November, will decide whether to adopt the recommendations as policy.

But key pieces of the plan would need agreement from the U.S. Forest Service, which regulates land use and hunting guides on the islands.

The plan asks the Forest Service to issue no new guide permits and let the number of guides, now at 38, decline through attrition. And it calls for the agency to set conservative figures for the number of people -- hunters and tourists -- who can use each area of the islands.

The group also wants the Forest Service to close some former logging roads on northeast Chichagof Island, where the number of bear kills has risen more rapidly than in other areas.

About 140 brown bears on the islands are killed each year, mostly by nonresidents. Southeast residents take less than a fifth, the group's report said.

The group agreed to stay with the state's current guideline of human-caused bear deaths of 4 percent, averaged over three years, of each island's population. But the deaths of female bears would be capped at 1.5 percent, lower than the usual state target.

The group favored a conservative harvest of female bears because it's hard to know what the bear population is, and the group didn't want a lot of invasive regulations, Streveler said.

If more restrictions are needed, the state should reduce guided harvests first, before reducing hunting seasons or limiting the number of hunters, the report said.

``We wanted to give the resident kind of a leg up when it comes to restrictions,'' said Ron Somerville, representing the Territorial Sportsmen on the group.

Another major issue was the conflict between people who want to look at bears and people who want to hunt them. Although some group members wanted more viewing areas such as Admiralty Island's Pack Creek, near which hunting is forbidden, the group looked for a way to accommodate both types of users.

The report suggests creating Brown Bear Special Use Zones, in which viewers are kept far enough away from bears so the animals don't become a returning population that is habituated to humans. That way, hunting won't seem like fishing in a fishbowl, Streveler said.

Bob Engelbrecht, who represented the Alaska Visitors Association on the group, endorsed it as a more natural and appropriate way for people to view bears as part of the ecosystem.

Somerville of the Territorial Sportsmen said the outdoors group didn't want more areas closed to hunting. When bears become so habituated to people that bears get individual names, the area ends up managed for bear-viewing and hunting is excluded, he said.

``We're trying to set up something where viewing can be accomplished in a broader context ... more toward treating bears as part of the total environment and viewing them when you can,'' Somerville said.

The Forest Service is analyzing shoreline-based commercial outfitting and guiding use in the Chatham area of the Tongass National Forest, including Admiralty, Baranof and Chichagof islands. A draft environmental statement is expected in March 2001.

Forest Service officials were not available today for comment on the bear management report.

Public comment on the bear management plan will be accepted by July 31 at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, P.O. Box 240020, Douglas, Alaska 99824. Copies of the plan are available at the Douglas office or on the Internet RIGHT HERE.

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