Biologists with the Department of Fish and Game and the trooper involved in the investigation of the light-colored black bear shot in Skagway last month met with local residents in a public forum on July 17.
After being grilled by many in the audience, the state officials apologized that the so-called "Skagway Spirit Bear" was not protected better. They said they thought the regulation adopted by the Board of Game last fall was adequate - until the bear was shot.
Now there is concern that without a broader definition of a white-colored bear by the Board of Game, then a similar bear seen north of Juneau in Unit 1C also could be hunted legally.
There still has been no positive identification that the bear shot June 5 by Dyea Road resident Thor Henricksen was the "Spirit Bear" that was given protection at the request of the Municipality of Skagway. A team of biologists and troopers inspected the hide and compared it with photos submitted by several residents, but could not come to a conclusion, other than saying it was a light-colored cinnamon black bear. Henricksen was not at the meeting, but has said in media interviews that he thought it was a cinnamon bear, and shot it on his property because it was a possible threat to his family. He had a hunting license and the bear was taken in season. No charges were filed against him.
The fact that the "Spirit Bear" has not been seen since the shooting has many, including state officials, concluding that it was probably the bear that was intended to be protected.
At the meeting, Division of Wildlife Conservation biologists Ryan Scott and Neil Barten of Juneau said several officials were involved in viewing the bear that was shot. Fish and Wildlife Trooper Rick Merritt of Haines said they looked at the hide in several lighting conditions, both inside and outside.
"Bottom line, we could not call it white," Scott said. "It upsets a lot of people and makes a lot of people frustrated."
Merritt agreed, saying he could not call the bear "white," since it had multiple colors including cinnamon and black." He added that his job was to "enforce the regulation, and the regulation said a white-colored bear."
A photo of the bear taken by Barb Brodersen about a mile south of Henricksen's property on the day it was shot was circulated. It showed a mostly off-white bear with black ears and touches of blonde, cinnamon and black on its side and hindquarters. After looking at the photo, Merritt said he could not be 100 percent, but "the photo looks different than the hide I saw."
When asked by Mayor Tom Cochran who invited the officials to come up to Skagway, Scott said they did it on their own after it was suggested they come up. Former mayor Tim Bourcy, who helped draft the original letter of request for protection last June, said he made the call, and Scott said he volunteered.
"We could let it fester or we could talk about it," Scott said.
Jan Wrentmore passed out Bourcy's letter to the Board of Game, which specified protection for the "white-phase black bear" seen around Skagway since it was a cub in 2005. She said the Board of Game changed the language in the regulation to "white-colored."
"Nothing personal, but someone in the department needs to take responsibility for failing this bear and this community," she said.
Scott said he did not know how the wording got changed. He said the team of Fish and Game biologists offered no recommendation on the request, leaving it up to the Board of Game. An emergency 120-day regulation was put into place last August, and the board adopted a permanent regulation protecting the "white colored black bear" in Unit 1D at its Southeast meeting in November.
Several times during the meeting, Barten described the situation as an "allocation issue" that could only be addressed again by the Board of Game. A big problem inherent in the issue, he said, was the question, "Is it a white bear?", how they look in certain lighting conditions, and how they can change colors as they get older. He said they have heard that the Kermode bears in British Columbia have a broader definition, and they are checking into it.
Barten said anyone could petition the board for a change in regulation. Proposals are due Aug. 15 for consideration at the board's Nov. 7-11 meeting in Juneau.
He said he hoped the incident would not stop people from contacting him about fish and wildlife issues.
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