The state Department of Fish and Game will be watching the spring brown bear harvest, as the number of kills has exceeded the state’s guideline harvest limit with more than half the season remaining.
Through this week, 17 brown bears have been taken, including three killed in defense of life or property and three others taken illegally. The state’s guideline harvest is 16.
About 60 percent of the harvest typically comes during the fall hunt, from Sept. 15 to Dec. 31. The spring hunt, the second part of the regulatory season, begins March 15 and ends May 31.
Assistant area wildlife biologist Anthony Crupi this week said Fish and Game has no immediate concerns about the valley’s brown bear population. "We have no intent to close (the hunt), but we’ll be monitoring it closely… Things have worked and we’ve had a sustainable harvest. "
Besides a high number of bears taken outside of hunts, harvest is being pushed by new interest from outside of Haines, particularly from guides whose harvest on the Tongass National Forest is limited, Crupi said.
Bears dominated Friday’s meeting of the Upper Lynn Canal Advisory Committee. The committee voted 5-2 that Fish and Game shouldn’t conduct a study to determine the number of brown bears here.
Fish and Game estimates there are 400 bears, and sets harvest limits accordingly, but biologists don’t view their estimate as a solid number.
It’s a "best-guess" estimate from a habitat model for Southeast Alaska developed more than two decades ago, Crupi told the committee last week. "Nobody at Fish and Game has a whole lot of confidence in what the number actually is."
A population study was suggested by committee member Al Gilliam, an upper-valley game guide who said the jump in kills could trigger an emergency regulations that could close the hunt, putting guides out of work.
"Because we have no past baseline of bear population density, or for den locations, it is imperative that we initiate such a program as soon as possible, because when it comes to the increasing use of historic bear habitat by humans and the resulting human/bear contact, historically the bears always lose," Gilliam wrote to fellow members, specifically citing concerns with bears at the Haines landfill.
"If we don’t do this, we’re sticking our heads in the sand. I’m not afraid of numbers. The only way to maintain the population is to have a good count," Gilliam said at the meeting.
John Katzeek, who also is a game guide, led opposition to the idea, saying a percentage of the bear population is transient, that bears move in and out of the valley depending on feed, and that the recent spike in kills was due to bears taken around town.
"When the habitat isn’t there, the bears are going to go somewhere else," Katzeek said. Scientific studies haven’t kept populations of other species from declining, he said. "We’re overstudying the Chilkat Valley."
Committee members Sean McLaughlin, Dave Werner, Dean Risley, and Randy Jackson sided with Katzeek. Tim McDonough supported study.
"Human pressure on these animals is increasing. Without science, it’s harder to convince people they need to back off," McDonough said.
Werner cited concerns about the expense of a study he called "an absolute waste of money" and McLaughlin said a study that found less than 400 bears could reduce the guideline harvest level, which is set at 4 percent of the population. "If a study finds 200 bears in three years, based on the 4 percent model, you’ve just shot yourself in the foot. I know for a fact, what we have works. At this point, I’d rather not see a change."
Crupi said new, genetic testing allows the state to estimate bear populations using snares that pull out a tuft of bear hair, and that such a study was done in Berners Bay in 2008 in conjunction with a Juneau access study.
The state has little money for new studies, and even with advisory committee support such research probably wouldn’t happen for years, Crupi said. State management objectives include a harvest of at least 60 percent males during the springtime hunt and a male to female harvest ratio of three to two.
Eight females have been taken so far. Crupi told the committee the female kill numbers were "a little bit alarming, but we’ll get through it." The 16-bear guideline harvest limit is an average over three years, he said.
Crupi said he couldn’t estimate the cost of a valley-wide population study, but said he thought the information would be a benefit. "When we have better research data to base our decisions on, typically the resource and the resource users benefit."