ANCHORAGE - The state Department of Fish and Game is expected to close the Kenai Peninsula's fall brown bear hunt, due to an unusually high number of killings of bears in defense shootings and traffic accidents.
During the month of July five bears have been killed - three within a week. Some are nuisance bears shot by frightened homeowners. But others were struck and killed by traffic.
The grisly toll follows a growing trend over the past few years, said Gino Del Frate, a state wildlife biologist based in Homer. More and more Peninsula brown bears are being killed outside the hunting season, he said. And the mortality typically peaks at the height of summer.
"We've had a rash in July, but it also coincides with a whole lot of people on the Kenai," he said. "There's lots of bears moving around, and there are lots of people interacting with bears because they're all looking for the same stuff, which is sockeye salmon."
Summer brown bear mortality has grown from near zero in the 1980s to a peak of 14 in the past year, Del Frate said.
Of the five reported kills since July 1, perhaps the most notable was a huge male that may have weighed as much as 800 pounds. It was critically wounded in a collision late last week with a Chevy S-10 pickup truck and had to be put down. The truck hit the bear at about 2:30 a.m. Friday on the Kenai Spur Highway between Soldotna and Kenai.
Although the summer's death count sounds alarming, Del Frate described it as "manageable." The overall population is healthy, he said.
Existing estimates put the population at from 250 to 300.
Biologists say the current population model allows just six sows to be killed a year. Female bears are very slow to reproduce, and if their numbers fall too low, the overall population can plummet. The total number of brown bears allowed to be taken in a hunting season is 14.
The state is close to reaching its six-sow quota through defense shootings and traffic accidents and likely will close the Peninsula's fall brown bear hunt, Del Frate said. A decision will be made in coming weeks.