Juneau -- Alaska's bears are a powerful lot in the wild, but they're politically and ecologically vulnerable, the North American Bear Foundation says.
In an effort to conserve the environment that feeds them and to insulate them from political whims, the group has come to Alaska.
"The governor shouldn't be making decisions on bears," said Carl Rosier, president of the group's new Alaska chapter and a former Alaska Fish and Game commissioner. He referred to Alaska's predator-control program.
Rosier, who served as commissioner from 1991 to 1995 under Gov. Walter Hickel, said he doesn't want to see hunting regulations relaxed because of political pressure, just as he doesn't want animal-rights groups and others opposed to hunting getting involved in game management.
Professionals at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game do a good job of managing the state's bear population, he said.
Greg Petrich, director of the Alaska chapter, said he and the group will work to keep it that way. He has more than 15 years of experience in Alaska habitat conservation issues, has worked as a fish and wildlife officer for the Alaska State Troopers and has worked as a guide for several operations in Southeast Alaska.
"Alaska's bears represent the true power and essence of our nation's wildlands," he said. "They're a symbol of the wilderness."
The foundation is primarily about conservation, he said. He is interested in promoting habitat -- including clean water and fisheries. The Alaska chapter will place a strong emphasis on the health and continued abundance of the state's fisheries. Strong in-stream fish returns are the engines that fuel the bear population, as well as providing recreation for sportsmen and business opportunities, he said.
"Conservation absolutely goes first," Petrich said. "What's good for the fish is good for the bear -- and the average Alaskan's livelihood."
The foundation, a nonprofit organization, was incorporated in 1998 in Fort Ripley, Minn., dedicated to safeguarding native bears and other wildlife populations of the continent by promoting public awareness, education and sound management of natural resources, according to its mission statement.
The Alaska chapter, just getting started in Juneau, plans to continue the tradition and engage in a broad range of activities important to people who value the outdoors, Petrich said.
"More fish in the creek, more power to the bear," Petrich said, quoting the chapter's motto.
Bears are Alaska's largest land predator. Black bears and brown bears thrive in Southeast Alaska. Black bears outnumber the larger brown bears statewide, but according to Department of Fish and Game estimates, brown bears outnumber people living on Admiralty Island near Juneau by about 3-to-1.
With as many as 45,000 brown bears, Alaska has more than 98 percent of the brown or grizzly bears remaining in the United States, Petrich said. Alaska has more than 70 percent of the brown bears remaining in North America.
Rosier said he has seen politics override scientific research in wolf management. When he was fish and game commissioner, the issue of wolf hunting prompted about 100,000 letters from across the country.
"There were people who thought wolves shouldn't be harvested," he said. "They have been glamorized by animal-rights people." As a symbol, he added, "they've been a huge money-maker for animal rights."
Bears never reached that point, and Rosier would like to see that they don't, he said. Bears have created controversies in population centers such as Juneau, where some of the large animals raid people's garbage. But newer garbage-handling rules in the city have reduced the problem.
"It wasn't the bear's fault," Rosier said.