One of the planet's premier bear viewing destinations is the contiguous area encompassed by McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and Refuge and Katmai National Park and Preserve. Each year more than 10,000 people travel from all over the world to observe and photograph Katmai and McNeil bears.
Congress recognized the value of these bears in the Alaska Land Act, and directed Katmai National Park and Preserve to maintain "high concentrations" of brown bears. But every other year, a few dozen people also come to Katmai Preserve to hunt bears under rules established by the Alaska Board of Game.
These hunting rules are enabling an unsustainable number of Katmai Preserve brown bears to be killed -- conflicting with this Park Service mandate. We're asking that the fall 2007/spring 2008 hunt in Katmai be deferred to allow for a comprehensive bear management plan that will ensure the bear population in Katmai remains high.
Bears tracked by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game show that they regularly move between McNeil and Katmai to follow food sources. The bears have developed a superhighway over the mountains as they pursue the summer chum salmon run at McNeil River and the red salmon run that extends into the fall on Moraine and Funnel creeks in Katmai Preserve. It is on these late fall feeding grounds in Katmai Preserve that the Board of Game has failed to manage for sustainable high concentrations of bears.
Katmai bear viewing guides Ken and Chris Day have spent 75 days a year in the preserve for the past 13 years, and they are observing a decline in bear numbers. In 1994, it was not uncommon to see 35 to 60 adult bears per day. In 2006, a typical daily count was 10 or 11 adult bears. Only two large males were observed all year.
Fish and Game says bear numbers at McNeil River have dropped about 22 percent from the 1990s to now. Not only are total numbers down, but there also seem to be fewer large males. Clearly something is amiss.
The Katmai Preserve hunt is authorized for every other fall/spring. From 1985 to 2002, there were nine fall/spring hunts with an average harvest of about seven bears per year.
Fish and Game biologists stated in 2003 that a "sustainable harvest from the Preserve (Katmai) is seven to nine bears per calendar year." That is five to six percent of the estimated Katmai bear population.
But from 2003 to 2006, the harvest level increased to 12 percent of the estimated bear population, or about 17 bears per year. This increase from seven to 17 bears killed per year, in our mind, at least partially explains the drop in observable bear numbers at both Katmai and McNeil.
The Board of Game has several proposals about the shrinking bear population to consider at its March 2-12 meetings. These include shortening the season, limiting the number of hunters, or, as some have suggested, shutting down the hunt altogether.
We feel Congress intended for some hunting to continue, otherwise Katmai Preserve would have been made a park. But hunting also has to be compatible with the other purposes of the preserve, including protecting "high concentrations" of brown bears.
One need only look to the bear hunt on Kodiak Island for an example of a well-managed and successful hunting program. It sets a harvest level of about 6 percent. The Kodiak harvest is managed by a comprehensive bear management plan that maintains diversity in age and sex class, while also allowing the overall bear population to increase slightly.
The upcoming hunt should be deferred to allow the National Park Service and Fish and Game to determine their population goals, conduct any additional research, and develop the kind of bear management plan that is successful on Kodiak. Once the bear population again meets the congressional mandate for "high concentrations," we would not oppose the reinstatement of a limited hunt that ensures a sustainable harvest.
Jim Stratton is Alaska regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association. Derek Stonorov has worked 10 seasons at McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and is currently a bear viewing guide in Katmai National Park and Preserve.