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Help the McNeil Bear Sanctuary off linmits to hunting

The Bears of Katmai

Bill Sherwonit / Anchorage Press / February 18, 2009

Nearly seventeen months have passed since October 2007, when a local TV crew set up camp on Kukaklek Lake, in the upper Alaska Peninsula, to report on a legal but controversial brown bear hunt in Katmai National Preserve. The video and story the team brought back startled and repulsed many Alaskans, hunters and non-hunters alike.

Though the story has mostly been forgotten-or set aside in the public's consciousness- it will no doubt be resurrected next week, when the Alaska Board of Game meets in Anchorage. Among the 246 proposed regulation changes they'll consider are four that would change how the Katmai Preserve hunt is managed.
One thing that almost certainly won't change, however, is the hunt's basic nature. Sport hunters will still be allowed to approach within a few dozen feet of brown bears and kill animals that have grown habituated to people after spending weeks in the close company of nonthreatening wildlife watchers and anglers.

That's exactly what made the reporting by KTUU's Megan Baldino and images by freelance videographer Dan Zatz of Homer so disconcerting, and such a YouTube sensation.

If anything, the video didn't fully capture what Brad Josephs calls the "nightmarish" nature of the experience. Josephs, a Homer bear-viewing guide who accompanied Baldino and Zatz, recalls "It was brutal, a massacre, a crushing thing to see if you care about bears. [The day before the hunt] we had gotten some rapport with the female bear that eventually got killed; we got to know her a little bit. That's what made it the worst. She and other bears were grazing right next to the guide's camp. The hunters were inside their electric fences, watching like the rest of us.

"After all that, to watch the hunters approach this bear and put an arrow into her, and then see the bear freak out until the guide finally shoots her, it was like seeing a sick version of a bear hunt. By the time we left, we'd heard several shots and saw at least three dead bears."

Where's the sport in that, Josephs and others wondered.

Alaska Fish and Game bear researcher Sean Farley told the Anchorage Daily News's Peter Porco after watching the video, "It looks more like a saunter through tundra [than a stalk]. It's not fair chase.

"I feel personally remiss as the regional biologist that I haven't thought it out that this is what's going on over there [in Katmai]. Not until I saw the video did I realize how bad it is. It's not appropriate."

Farley's candid comments weren't shared by others in his agency nor by top officials in the National Park Service's Alaska regional office.  Fish and Game regional wildlife supervisor Grant Hilderbrand puts it this way: "Relative to ethics, as long as folks follow the law, the ethics lie with each individual user, hunters and viewers alike."

Marcia Blaszak, at the time the Park Service's regional director for Alaska (she's since retired), carefully sidestepped repeated questions about fair chase ethics when interviewed shortly after the 2007 Katmai hunt. "The whole question of ethical behavior is a social issue," she said. "It goes beyond our capability as managers. What is fair chase? It seems there are any number of gradations. If the hunt is done legally, within the established regulatory framework, then I have no legal basis to upend it."

Comments made this month by Katmai superintendent Ralph Moore show no change in that thinking: "'Fair chase' is a concept among hunters rather than a regulatory scheme. It is unclear what is meant by 'fair chase' . . . [state hunting regulations] define 'ethical' in a regulatory sense, and it is those rules which we and the state of Alaska enforce."

The state's official stance was no big surprise. Under Frank Murkowski and more recently Governor Sarah Palin, the Department of Fish and Game and Board of Game have unapologetically sided with sport hunters' rights and boosted hunting opportunities at nearly every turn. But for the NPS to condone what even some hunters condemned as a "shooting gallery" shocked many wildlife advocates, given the agency's mandate to protect the wildlands and wildlife within its management units.

It didn't shock those who understand the workings of Alaska's wildlife politics, however.

"Daniel's video clearly raised ethical questions," said Jim Stratton, who directs the National Park Conservation Association's Alaska office. "That kind of hunt is not appropriate, especially in a place like Katmai, that protects a special bear population. But the Park Service doesn't want to get into a fight with Fish and Game.  In the past, it has routinely gotten thumped when it takes on the state. Unless there's proof that Katmai's bears are being decimated by the hunt, the Park Service isn't going to do much."

Audubon Alaska's senior scientist John Schoen, himself a former bear researcher, concurred. "What everyone saw on television was disgusting. Both the National Park Service and Fish and Game will have to address the ethics of this hunt at some point. But that's not going to happen until the Park Service is willing to take on the state. And right now, the Park Service is afraid of the state, so it's passing the buck."

To understand why the Park Service is so afraid of the state, you have to go back to the high-stakes negotiations that led to the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Among other things, the Alaska Lands Act boosted the state's national parklands to 55 million acres, more than half of it designated wilderness. To make the creation of new parklands more palatable to Alaskans, Congress agreed that some new or expanded units-for instance Katmai, Denali, Wrangell-St. Elias, and Gates of the Arctic-would include "preserves" where certain activities normally banned in parks would be allowed, including sport hunting and trapping.

Any park service attempt to diminish those opportunities-for whatever good reason the agency might have-has predictably riled state officials and the wrath of Alaska's Congressional delegation, most notably Senator Ted Stevens. (Whether and how Stevens' departure might change things is a story in itself.)

While banned in 3.6-million-acre Katmai National Park, trophy bear hunting is allowed in the 405,000-acre preserve. And by law it is managed by the state. For years, the hunt went largely unnoticed, both because few bears were killed and it didn't conflict with other recreational uses. Only within the last decade has the Katmai hunt become an issue.

According to Blaszak, the Park Service is obligated to defer to the state on hunting matters in the preserve "unless there is a significant conflict."

"We do have the ability to take unilateral action if an extraordinary circumstance warrants it," adds John Quinley, the NPS's assistant regional director for communications. "For Katmai's bears, we still haven't seen that."

Some Alaskans might consider the events on Zatz's video an "extraordinary circumstance." But many of Alaska's most knowledgeable bear people agree with Quinley and Blaszak that it wasn't so unusual, except that bear viewers and reporters happened to be present.

Derek Stonorov, a brown bear researcher and more recently an educator and bear-viewing guide, puts it bluntly: "Killing bears anywhere on the Alaska Peninsula is a very easy thing to do. Give any guide a few beers and they'll agree. The myth of big, fierce bears being hard to hunt and kill comes from the hunting industry."

Tom Smith, another longtime researcher and recognized expert on Alaska's brown bears now living in Utah, expands on Stonorov's comment: "I think what Dan Zatz has done, in part, is merely expose the public to hunting in that part of the world. It's not much of a hunt when bears are so tolerant-much like shooting cattle in a pen, an unarguable point. But it's been going on a very long time on the Alaska Peninsula.

"When has 'fair chase' really been a part of it? Hunting is more like sniping when it comes to bear hunts: you settle in an area you either know has had a large male present or you hope will, position yourself so you can see the trail well, wait until the bear walks along, then shoot it. The hunter has a high-powered rifle, a scope, perhaps a gun rest, a safe distance, and the element of surprise. . . . Is it wrong? I'm not one to say, but I can say that this is mostly how it is done."

Larry Aumiller, who managed the nearby McNeil River State Game Sanctuary for three decades and also spent many years at Fish and Game working with hunters, adds, "It's what I've always called 'the dirty little secret.' It's not that hard to kill a brown bear. What makes them most vulnerable is their tolerance or indifference to people. "

Smith elaborates, explaining that coastal brown bears-unlike Interior-dwelling grizzlies-"have very small personal spaces, perhaps the distance of a paw reach, and although wary of one another they pass relatively close without incident. Humans benefit from this. Bears generalize their bear-bear response (one of tolerance) to humans . . . we get a pass."

And both viewers and hunters benefit.

Though willing to accept Smith's premise, Aumiller emphasizes that bears' innate wariness of humans is greatly reduced by repeated nonthreatening interactions with people. That's what's makes McNeil so attractive for bear viewing. Many bears eventually become so habituated that they will eat, nap, and sometimes even nurse cubs or mate in the nearby company of people.

Even if we accept that bears are easy to hunt throughout the Alaska Peninsula,  it's reasonable to ask whether Katmai (or at least that part of the preserve frequented by bear viewers) is an appropriate place to allow "shooting gallery"-style hunts

Because management agencies have so far proved unwilling to address that question, Stonorov insists that any attempts to change the Katmai hunt "should have nothing to do with ethics. Our argument should be based on what we see: fewer and fewer bears every year."

And that brings us to another point of contention in this ongoing debate, perhaps the biggest: the claim that Katmai's bear-watching opportunities have been diminished by changed hunting patterns and more kills.

Longtime Homer residents Chris and Ken Day began guiding bear-viewing trips in the Katmai Preserve in 1994. In the mid-1990s, they and their clients were the only ones regularly watching bears in the now-popular Funnel-Moraine-Battle Creeks area, and they've continued to return there "seven days a week, a hundred days a year" for the past 15 years.

The Days are among those who've submitted a proposal to the Board of Game this year, hoping to fix what they view as problems in the fall season of the Katmai hunt. (The Katmai Preserve hunt occurs every other year, with a fall season in odd-numbered years followed by one the next spring.) Their proposal is straightforward: move the fall season's start from October 1 to October 15 in the northeastern preserve, where Katmai adjoins the McNeil River sanctuary and refuge.

Like McNeil, Katmai's Funnel-Moraine-Battle Creeks area annually hosts a large gathering of brown bears, attracted by salmon. Sockeye that began their inland journey in Bristol Bay usually begin arriving by mid-July and they continue to swim and spawn here into October.

The sockeyes and bears in turn lure people. Since the late 1990s, a steadily growing number of bear watchers and sport fishermen have come here. By the time October rolls around, bears have grown used to sharing creeks and lakeshores with lots of humans, making them easy targets for hunters.

If the hunt were started in mid-October, the bear-watching and angling crowds would be gone and the bears would have begun to disperse. It would make the hunt more challenging. But it would also ease, if not erase, the sense that the Katmai Preserve is little more than a slaughter.

It would also mean that hunters wouldn't be shooting at bears while wildlife watchers and anglers are present in their greatest numbers. If the start of the hunt remains October 1, "Other recreationists will be threatened or even injured by rifle fire," says Chris Day. "The image of bear hunting, if not hunting in general, will be tarnished by concurrent uses."

The argument that hunting and bear watching are incompatible activities-especially at the same spot and about the same time-makes intuitive sense. But others maintain the two get along just fine. Rod Arno, the Alaska Outdoor Council's executive director, has made that argument time and again. Fish and Game managers and most Board of Game members seem to concur.

In asking for greater separation, the Days point out that Katmai's fall bear hunt began later in October for years, until moved up to Oct. 1 in 1999 Not coincidentally, they add, soon after that their Katmai Preserve bear viewing experiences began changing for the worse.

Before 2001, Chris Day says, "we were watching 60 to 80 bears at the peak, including several large males. Every day we would see 10 or 11 big males, 1,000 pounds or more. Now we may see one or two all season. We have seen the population go from a balanced one-all sexes and ages represented-to one that's almost exclusively young females and cubs.

"We suspected hunting right away."

Acting on their suspicions, the Days testified before the Board of Game in 2001. They've been back every two years since. At first they asked that the Katmai hunt be shut down; they now realize that was naïve and may have tainted them as anti-hunting (they're not). More recently they have simply asked that the season be "rolled back" to mid-October or that a limited registration hunt be enacted.

Never, that the Days can tell, has the Board taken their requests seriously.

Even more exasperating to the Days, Derek Stonorov, and other bear-viewing advocates is the Park Service's reluctance to act.

"We have lobbied the past three [Katmai] superintendents about these issues, but we have been constantly stonewalled," Chris Day says. "Part of the problem is the frequent change of leadership. Every time someone new takes over, it takes a while for them to get up to speed. Just the fact that there's been no consistent leadership, no continuity, is a problem. Most of the people making decisions have not even walked on the ground in the preserve."

The Park Service does presently support a later start to the fall hunt, though not as late as the Days would like. Its preference, says superintendent Ralph Moore, is a return to the pre-1999 season of October 7-21. That shortened season would allow bears more time to disperse from salmon streams and still give hunters plenty of opportunity to get their bears.


At first, Chris and Ken Days' insistence that the number of bears-especially mature males-has substantially dropped in their bear-viewing area seems at odds with Fish and Game studies conducted in both the preserve and the larger region. According to the state, aerial stream surveys conducted in the preserve between 2005 and 2007 yielded counts of 189, 331 and 581 bears. (No survey was done in 2008.)

The National Park Service, among others, has interpreted those numbers to support its conclusion that "there are high concentrations of bears in Katmai National Park and Preserve." In fact, "the available fall bear count data is suggestive of increasing bear numbers."

Using both the surveys and state bear-harvest data, the agency is furthermore "confident that it is meeting its Congressional responsibility for a 'high concentration' of brown/grizzly bears."

If only it were that simple.

It turns out that Fish and Game's survey numbers are not as clear-cut as they appear to the untrained eye. And they don't necessarily contradict the Days' observations.

Following the October 2007 Katmai hunt and the release of Fish and Game's Katmai bear-survey counts, I instigated an online conversation among several widely respected bear researchers and managers, including Larry Aumiller, Tom Smith, Sterling Miller, Sean Farley and Lem Butler. Miller is a former state bear researcher now living in Montana. Farley and Butler both work for Fish and Game; the latter is area management biologist for the Katmai region and also conducted the 2005-2007 Katmai Preserve surveys.


It took a series of emails between these professionals to sort out some misunderstandings even among themselves. In the end, though, after several lengthy discussions, the biologists mostly agreed on several points.

First, long-term studies of bears in Game Management Unit 9-which encompasses all of the Alaska Peninsula, including Katmai National Park and Preserve-have yielded reliable population information for the unit as a whole.

Second, Unit 9's population is healthy and stable, if not increasing.

Third, in their seasonal search for food, bears move widely around the region. Bears that inhabit the Katmai Preserve in late summer and fall may be miles away in spring or early summer.  "I'd be willing to make an educated guess that at least 60 percent of the bears that use the preserve during the [July-September] bear-viewing season spend the majority of the year somewhere else," Butler says. For that reason alone, it's all but impossible to estimate the preserve's bear population; in spring it might be a few dozen bears-in the fall, several hundred.

Fourth, the 2005-07 stream survey counts tell researchers nothing about bear population trends. Butler emphasizes that Fish and Game has made "no attempts to draw conclusions about trends in bear use of the preserve from my data. . . . I consider all statements about trends to be a misuse of the data."

But as Farley points out, it's critical to know how Fish and Game presented that data to the public. "Did we explicitly state that the numbers show the population increasing? Or were the data simply presented as fluctuations . . . and others are providing their own interpretation?"

Others have indeed drawn their own conclusions, including the Park Service. But partly that's because the state initially put Butler's survey results on Fish and Game's website with no discussion or interpretation. Depending on a person's knowledge and perspectives, the data was open to all kinds of interpretation.

Finally, neither Butler's stream surveys nor the overall health of Unit 9's brown bear population directly challenges what the Days have observed in their guiding area. The trends they've noted may be every bit as real as what researchers have observed elsewhere.

The Days aren't alone in witnessing a bear decline in the Funnel-Moraine-Battle Creeks drainages. Derek Stonorov, Dave Bachrach, and Jules and Peg Tileston similarly report substantial drop-offs.

"We have been watching and photographing brown bears in this area during the same period since 1999," the Tilestons report. "The first year we saw more than 40 bears in an eight-hour period. These were a mixture of females, sows with cubs, juveniles, and big boars. In subsequent years, we have seen fewer and fewer bears, particularly cubs and big boars."

Bear management critics point to a huge jump in Katmai bear kills over the past decade, particularly in fall. Between 1995-96 and 2001-2002, the Katmai harvest ranged from nine to 19 bears; since 2003 it has numbered between 29 and 35.

Even more dramatic is the changing fall season kill: five bears or less in the mid-1990s, 13 in 1999, and then 29, 26, and 23 the past three seasons, respectively. Recent high totals almost certainly reflect the earlier starting date. As the Days have argued, in early October, hunters are more likely to find larger numbers of bears, many of them highly habituated to humans. In fact, says Butler, that's exactly why the Board of Game moved up the hunt, "to allow more opportunity to harvest brown bears in that area."

From a management perspective, the increased kill is no big deal. As summarized by Butler, the preserve and regional population "is healthy and able to support the current level of harvest."

But Larry Aumiller points out that harvest numbers alone don't tell the whole story.

"What [biologists and managers] dealing with the Katmai Preserve issues miss is that bears are not interchangeable. If you kill the 10 most tolerant bears (which of course are the most likely to be killed) then you are going to have eight to 10 fewer bears to see the next few years, even though those 'niches' may be filled by less tolerant and more secretive bears. When I saw the harvest figures go up in the preserve, I knew they would start seeing fewer bears there. And knowing what we do about bear home ranges and movements, I knew 'McNeil bears' were also being removed by hunting. It is well documented now that summer 'McNeil bears' are also fall 'Katmai bears.' "

Aumiller adds, "The discussion shouldn't be about population and harvest rates. The preserve issue is about a use that has nothing-or very little-to do with how 'healthy' a population is."

But it has everything to do with the conflicts that arise when a population of bears draws both viewers and hunters. And it also has to do with the ethics of hunting human-habituated bears, and whether this is appropriate in a national preserve. At least that's what Aumiller, John Schoen of Audubon Alaska, Jim Stratton of the National Parks Conservation Society, and bear viewing guides believe.

As Schoen puts it, "At the outset, it seemed logical that NPS and ADF&G would sit down and discuss the concerns of the Days and Derek [Stonorov] and see if they could address the user conflicts that appear to be increasingŠ Clearly, something is happening. We need to focus on the small area of interest and how it is affecting local viewers rather than let the problem be defined as hunting reducing the regional bear population."

Interested parties met a couple of times in 2008 to begin addressing the Katmai conflicts. The first meeting focused on survey methods, population estimates, and management of the hunt. The second was supposed to bring together NPS officials, Fish and Game managers, and two of the preserve's primary commercial operators: Ken and Chris Day and Jim Hamilton, the only hunting guide permitted to operate in the preserve's eastern region.

According to the Park Service's John Quinley, both Hamilton and the Days "apparently left feeling better about each other."

Meanwhile Fish and Game's regional supervisor Grant Hildebrand viewed getting together as "a positive step to initiate a dialogue between two of the most affected resource users. Despite the relatively short meeting, Jim was very inquisitive as to what the Days wanted and offered several potential options relative to how he handles his clients, that have the potential to minimize at least some of the conflicts."

It's hard to know exactly what Hamilton thinks about that meeting-or to get his side of the October 2007 hunt and viewer-hunter conflicts in the Katmai Preserve-because he's been impossible to reach. Hamilton has taken down his website, his Kodiak phone number has been disconnected, emails to him have bounced back as undeliverable, and messages can't be left on his cell phone. But there's little reason for him to compromise. In both 2005 and 2007 he brought 12 hunters into the preserve and all 12 got their bear, while paying $15,900 (the 2005 rate) for an almost certain trophy. What would he gain from any negotiation?

The Days' memory of that 2008 meeting differs considerably. "We have no remembrance of Jim Hamilton's 'potential offers' that Grant speaks of," says Chris Day. "Hamilton was cordial and made all the motions of wanting to 'work together' but nothing specific got discussed.

"Personally we don't hold out much hope but are certainly willing to work toward a solution. In our mind the only solution is to take the pressure off those bears. We need someone to address the ethics issues, hunting habituated bears, and user-group conflicts."

From Fish and Game's perspective, viewers and hunters need to work this out themselves. "This is a user conflict between two legal and legitimate resource uses," Hilderbrand says, "and the onus for resolving it, at least in my mind, lies with the users. I view our role as providing a forum in which this dialogue can occur.

"I have not seen or heard of any further general dialogue or discussion between the user groups or responses to some of the specific ideas Jim [Hamilton] expressed at the meeting. To be blunt, this was somewhat surprising and disappointing . . . We will support this effort so long as the parties take the lead in the problem solving and indicate a desire to continue discussions and a willingness to work together, as solutions will require some compromise by all."

Stonorov fumed at Hilderbrand's comments, calling it "a real cop-out." Trying to work with the state, he concludes, "is a real dead end. To think that Hamilton is going to give up $16,000 bears or that changes will come from the Board of Game is wishful thinking.

"The only real avenue for change is the Park Service. All we can do is keep up whatever pressure we can muster and hope that politics change [at the federal level]. The Park Service can control the number of bears Hamilton is allowed to take; it can control sport fishing and enforce park rules. We should continue asking them to do so."

Sport fishing is a wild card that further complicates bear-human interactions in the preserve. It's increased greatly in recent years and Katmai bear-viewers now sometimes share the landscape with dozens of anglers. This may contribute to diminished bear numbers in the Funnel-Moraine-Battle Creeks area, as shyer bears are driven away by increased human crowds.

Almost certainly, sport fishers add to the conflict. And any compromises among user groups would likely have to include anglers.

Also complicating things is a new hunt, approved in 2008 by the Federal Subsistence Board for Unit 9C, which includes Katmai National Park and Preserve. The area opened to the subsistence bear hunt includes other federal lands, but Quinley says most effort will likely be concentrated in the Katmai Preserve. The new annual hunt will run from October through May, until 10 bears-or six females-are harvested. Ironically, the subsistence hunt was proposed by local residents worried about the effort of viewing guides to restrict sport hunting in the preserve, Butler says.

All of these recent changes suggest that the eastern Katmai preserve could be managed as a special area, whether by the state or Park Service-or both.

Stonorov, for one, would love to see the entire Katmai-McNeil-Kamishak region (the latter a state-owned "special use area" just east of McNeil) be joined in a special management area. The idea makes sense, given abundant evidence that resident bears seasonally travel throughout these separate, man-made units.  That's unlikely to happen anytime soon, though, given the Board of Game's resistance to strategies that diminish hunting opportunities.

But Stonorov and other bear-viewing guides and conservationists remain hopeful that some forward-thinking manager will recognize that the Katmai Preserve does present an "extraordinary circumstance" worthy of special management. As discouraged as many have become, they're determined to keep pushing for change. Maybe with President Obama now in office-and Ted Stevens gone from the Senate-the NPS will be willing to change it's approach.

But comments by Katmai's superintendent don't encourage those hopes. The Park Service, Moore says, still sees no need for a reduced bear harvest. Neither has it found evidence of any "on-the-ground" conflict in the preserve, or seen diminished bear activity.

Moore also takes a jab at the very people who seek changes in the Katmai hunt: "Some bear viewing guides pride themselves in how close they can get to bears, and on how close they can get their clients to bears. One result of this is that bears then become more accustomed to being close to humans without a negative repercussion, until hunting season when the same behavior that they have learned from bear viewers suddenly has fatal results."

Perhaps it's true, as critics of the Katmai hunt believe, that Park Service officials hope this controversy will simply die down and eventually disappear. If so, they're "very short-sighted," says Audubon Alaska's John Schoen. "The more hands-off they are, the bigger this is going to get. This just is not going away."

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