Tourists looking for brown bears on Admiralty, Baranof and Chichagof islands would have to change their expectations about up-close wildlife experiences, under a policy recommended by an ad hoc group.
``If you're trying to be respectful to the animal, you don't get right on its back,'' said Greg Streveler, a Board of Game member from Gustavus who chaired the bear management advisory team.
The group, in a report released Monday, suggested creating special zones where bear-viewers aren't close to the animals, and where hunting is allowed.
The islands' famed bears aren't being overharvested, state biologists said. The estimated population is 4,200 bears, far more than in all of the Lower 48, the report said. But the bears face growing pressure from hunters and tourists that could affect their numbers or feeding practices.
About 140 brown bears on the islands are killed by people each year, mostly by nonresident hunters. Southeast hunters take less than a fifth, the report said.
``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, Streveler said.
A major issue was the conflict between people who want to look at bears and people who want to hunt them. Some group members wanted more viewing areas similar to Admiralty Island's Pack Creek, where hunting is forbidden. But 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 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 the zones as a more natural and appropriate way for people to view bears as part of the ecosystem.
Ron Somerville, a group member representing the Territorial Sportsmen, also liked the zones. He said the outdoors group didn't want more areas closed to hunting. When bears become so habituated to people that viewers give bears 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 group agreed with the state's current guideline of annual human-caused bear deaths of 4 percent, averaged over three years, of each island's population. But the annual deaths of female bears, averaged over three years, should be capped at 1.5 percent -- lower than the usual state target, the report said.
The group favored a conservative harvest of female bears to avoid a lot of invasive regulations, Streveler said.
But 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,'' Somerville said.
The group also wants the U.S. Forest Service to freeze the number of hunting guides, currently at 38, and reduce it by half through attrition, but let the guides serve roughly the current number of nonresident hunters.
The goal is to have a viable guiding industry, reduce the effect on bears of a large number of guides, and increase the sense of stewardship of the resource.
With fewer guides, and those being full-time professionals, it's more likely they would have time to educate hunters about hunting ethics and to target trophy bears rather than females and young males, said Paul Grant, a group member who represented the Admiralty Island Bears Association of hunters and nonhunters.
Paul Johnson, representing two guide associations on the group, said a cap on guides would benefit the industry and give residents a priority. He supported the whole report because ``we're going to have bears in the future. That's the goal of everybody.''
The report also calls for the Forest Service to set conservative figures for the number of people -- hunters, fishermen and sightseers -- who can use each area of the islands.
The Forest Service is working on a study of how to allocate shore-based recreational use on the Admiralty, Baranof and Chichagof islands and other parts of the Tongass National Forest.
The Forest Service should establish allocations between commercial and noncommercial users, and consider restricting some commercial uses in some areas at certain times of the year, the report said.
The state Board of Game will review the consensus recommendations of the group -- composed of guides, hunters, conservationists, tourism industry figures, Huna Totem Corp. staff, and state and federal managers.
The board is expected to decide whether to adopt the recommendations as policy at its Juneau meeting in November. 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 bear group's recommendations will be included in the recreational-use analysis, said Marti Marshall, recreation specialist for the Tongass National Forest and a group member.
Some of the group's recommendations affect other Forest Service policies, and federal managers may refer to it as they make decisions, Marshall said.
Public comment on the bear management plan will be accepted until 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 through the website at www.state.ak.us/local/akpages/FISH.GAME
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