Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Record bear kills alarm experts

By Naomi Klouda
Homer Tribune

Brown bears searching for meals in chicken pens, salmon racks and garbage cans posed a higher number of legal kills last summer, pushing its status as a “species of concern.”

Reversing the trend will require cooperation from humans who need to remove the temptation or erect bear-proof barriers.

That was the message from bear experts with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on Thursday night at the Islands and Oceans Visitor’s Center in Homer.

“For responsible management of the species, things need to change,” said Jeff Selinger, bear biologist with the Department of Fish and Game in Kenai, said, “As a starting point in this discussion, there is a plan.”

Fish and Game consider the Kenai Peninsula brown bear to be a “species of concern” because its population is “vulnerable to a significant decline due to low numbers, restricted distribution, dependence on limited resources or sensitivity to environmental disturbances.”

About 40 bears were killed last summer on the peninsula, nearly twice as many as the previous five-year average of 24 kills, and much higher than the average of eight bear kills per year from 1973 to 2008.

The numbers are likely even higher since not all defense of life and property kills are reported, Selinger said.

“During record kill years, the human-caused bear mortality are represented only in the reported bear kills,” he said. Bears are found floating dead down the Kenai River and other places, proving that bears are killed without anyone filing the required reports.

Hard bear data is difficult to come by, both in terms of a current population and accurate kill numbers. Selinger said he believes reporting is much better today than 20 years back when it was “common practice if they saw a black bear, they would shoot it and not report it.”

A biologist doing stream surveys 10 to 15 years ago might have seen a dozen bears per summer. “It was difficult to find a bear to dart in the Swanson River country in the 1990s. Three years ago, while running a capture operation, we found four in one day.”

Reports from credible sources also help biologists gauge the population. Resident reports of bear sightings that distinguish between sows with cubs, juvenile bears and adults help.

“It all starts adding up. We’re seeing a lot more bears than we ever had. Fish escapements are good relative to 30 years ago, and there’s more human-generated food for bears to eat, too. The bottom line is that with more food sources, there’re more bears.”

And with more bears come more human-bear encounters, he said.

That’s the part humans can address.

“The best solution will come from everyone working at this together. It has to be a cooperative effort with law enforcement, fish and game and most importantly the public,” he said.

“Over the last decade, 39 percent of all nonhunting, human-caused mortalities occurred at a residence,“ Selinger said.

“We can definitely have an impact with how we handle bear attractants. If we could take that number and cut it in half, then we can have an impact on the defense of life and property deaths.”

Mitigation measures already are seeing some impact, said Fish and Game wildlife technician Larry Lewis.

“We don’t have any hard numbers, but I’ll guarantee that whenever people have removed the attractants, they are seeing results. That doesn’t mean they won’t see bears around their home,” Lewis said.

The highest numbers of nuisance bears — 85 percent of those that end up killed — are under 3 years old.

They’re curious. They’re chased around in the woods by bigger bears. They don’t have a sow to protect them. “Then, they come to the end of a road and there’s a garbage can,” Selinger said.

A $50 bear-proof garbage can is one prevention tool. Another solution is to use electric fencing around salmon smokehouses, drying racks, chicken houses and other sensitive areas.

Bears have been attracted to fish wheels and drying racks for centuries. Yukon River residents were willing to try the electric fences to keep them out, and found them to be effective, Selinger said.

“It works. It’s not overly expensive at $200 to $250, and it can last you for 20 years,” he said.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough also is cooperating in the conservation program to keep attractants like garbage from bears.

At the Quartz Creek Transportation site near Cooper Landing, the borough tested huge Dumpsters to find what would it take to keep the bears out. Through this study, the borough came up with a prototype for all remote transfer sites, Selinger said. In addition to better Dumpsters, the plan is to put fencing around the whole perimeter to keep bears out. Remote cameras also will be placed to monitor sites.

Ordinary trash cans are easy for bears to open, said Lewis, who gave a slideshow illustrating the problem. One photo featured a bear breaking into a Tupperware trash can as though it were a bag of chips.

Freezers left outside also pose a temptation that causes bears to get shot, but a “couple of ratchet straps” offer an easy, cheap solution, Lewis said.

Increasing limits for hunters isn’t the answer either, Lewis said.

“You could shoot every bear here today, but if you don’t change, then in 20 years’ time, we will be back where we were — the new ones will move in.”

Trapping and transporting the bears elsewhere also doesn’t work.

“Might as well race them back to town,” Lewis said.

The solution is to isolate an area that has chronic problems and implement specific tools like the bear-proof containers, electric fences and cooperative neighborhoods where attractants are kept beyond bears’ ability to grow accustomed to, the presenters said.

If it works here, the Kenai Peninsula might be on to a good plan that can protect people from possible bear maulings, save property and prevent a downward trend in a natural species whose population faces perils under the current way of doing things, Selinger said.

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