Fatality rate of Kenai Peninsula grizzlies soars

Posted: Friday, December 05, 2008

ANCHORAGE - For the second time in three years, the fatality rate for Kenai Peninsula grizzlies has exceeded 20 bears with this year's total expected to be nearly double.

Area wildlife biologist Jeff Selinger said he is still putting together the final tally.

Bears were shot in self-defense, run down by cars, killed by authorities who deemed the bears as threats and also shot illegally.

Not since the early 1990s have so many area grizzlies been killed. At the time, an average of 23 bears per year died between 1992-1994.

State biologists at that time called the kill rate a "cause for alarm." By 1998, the state had declared Kenai grizzly bears a "species of special concern" - akin to an animal being placed on the federal endangered species list as "threatened."

Biologists estimate that brown bears can only sustain a human-caused mortality of about 6 percent per year. Even at the high end of the population estimate for Kenai bears, a 6 percent harvest equals 18 dead animals.

This summer's kill - which happened despite the absence of a hunting season - is more than twice that. And it comes only one year after a record kill of 29 bears in 2006.

"The allowable annual (kill) should not exceed 14-21 bears if the population is estimated to contain 200-300 bears," Alaska Department of Fish and Game researcher Sean Farley warned in 2006.

However, Farley said that calculating how many dead bears is too many is not a straightforward numbers game. That's because some bears are more valuable than others.

The death at human hands of a productive sow has a far greater impact on the population than the loss of a newborn cub, which faces a high likelihood of dying of natural causes before reaching breeding age.

A lot of the dead bears on the Kenai this year were cubs or yearlings.

There are other factors at play, too. Nobody knows for certain how geographically isolated Kenai bears are.

Area wildlife supervisor Jeff Selinger in Soldotna said he is confident there are at least 250 to 300 bears and might be more. There is no sign that existing kill rates are depressing the population, he said.

"We have a healthy, vibrant, brown bear population on the Kenai Peninsula," he said.

Along the lower Russian, the attraction is salmon carcasses. The lower river is not a good place for bears to fish for salmon, but it's easy for them to catch the carcasses tossed in the river by anglers who filet fish.

Nine of the dead bears on the Kenai this summer were killed in and around the Cooper Landing stream. The dead include one of two young bears the state spent a significant amount of time and money trying to save.

That bear was captured and transplanted to a remote corner of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge north and east of the Russian. It ended up making its way south and west to North Kenai, where it got into trouble and was shot. Its sibling, meanwhile, ended up back at the Russian.

"That one will be back there next year," Selinger added.

Selinger remains optimistic about the future of the bears in the Cooper Landing area. He said 75 percent of the dead bears are garbage bears and most Kenai residents now seem willing to try to deal with garbage issues that attract bears in the first place.

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