I have researched brown bears on the Katmai coast for over a decade, mainly at Hallo Bay. The number of bears seen there during the 2008 mating season was about one-third that seen during 1998-2007. All mature sows and most adolescent sows had disappeared. Bear numbers were also low during rest of summer 2008, from Hallo down to Geographic Harbor. Numbers of first-year cubs dropped for a minimum of three litters to one. Numbers of yearling litters dropped from several to one or two.
A similar pattern has been observed higher up the coast. During August a few years ago, I flew from McNeil to Iniskin Bay, following each stream from mouth to headwaters. Several streams were choked with salmon, but none had visible bears, in stark contrast to previous years.
Apparently, bear numbers along the coast have declined greatly in recent years due to a combination of emigration, lower reproduction, and lower survivorship. (Granted, bear numbers were up a bit this year at McNeil, but the long-term trend has been a decline along the coast.)
Although evidence is too fragmentary to be sure there is a consistent widespread decline (not just random fluctuation), evidence is strong enough to warrant at least a temporary return to a much more conservative harvest quota, approximately like that which prevailed in the past.
Excessive harvest in any area can reduce number of bears living there (at least during salmon season) and suck bears out of surrounding habitat-a far cry from sustained-yield harvest. If increased hunting has turned the Preserve into a population sink, it could be sucking up boars from at least 50 miles away; they commonly travel such long distances in search of food. But by itself, a sink situation could not account for declining sow abundance at Hallo, which is much farther away than sows, especially those with cubs, normally travel.
Even population sink in the Preserve might not be the only factor drawing bears out of the Park. Abundance of salmon on the Bristol Bay side of the divide has been especially high in recent years. We might expect wide-ranging males to find these enhanced streams, if only by chance. This could increase their exposure to hunters both inside and outside the Preserve. But how could elevated salmon abundance in the Bristol Bay drainage draw sows from over 20 miles away-how would the news spread? Did the sows and cubs missing from Hallo not emigrate; were they instead poached; did they starve?
Mothers travel far outside their home range only when food cannot be found closer. Has their food supply declined? Yes, during summers 2007-2008 at Hallo, salmon were unusually scarce, perhaps due to observed illegal commercial fishing (although this incident was not documented thoroughly enough for prosecution, monitors will be prepared in 2009). Abundance of razor clams also declined. How serious and how widespread are these deficits?
During famines, bears are hit by both malnutrition and greater exposure to hunters if they travel outside a Park. Making matters worse are swollen rivers, avalanches and other hazards encountered while traveling - hazards far more dangerous to cubs than to adults.
We urge the Board of Game to base its criteria of sustainability not just on the number of bears (of each gender and age) of each species present within each GMU, or even just within each subunit. Rather, management should be based on much smaller land areas in accordance with how this resource is utilized by the public. And management should meet the needs of both consumptive and non-consumptive users.
The Katmai-McNeil region is the global center of bear viewing, with more than10,000 viewers annually. Viewing contributes over $100 million annually to Alaska's economy. Declines in the numbers of viewable bears are beginning to exert strong adverse impacts on the industry. (There is, of course, a few-year time lag between declines in bear numbers and declines in customer numbers, as news of poorer viewing opportunities ripples through the customer base). This adds insult to injury from the current global financial crisis and may soon threaten substantial financial disaster.
The Bear Viewing Association urges the Board of Game to alter regulations as necessary to minimize hunter impact on these bears and to conserve those individual bears that are most readily and safety viewed. (Viewing in this sense means that the animal can be observed for hours on end, going about its normal life activities, without significant disturbance by people, within photographic distances.)
Most serious bear attacks are inflicted by grizzly/brown bears, and most of these attacks are defensive, not offensive. Hunting bears makes them both shyer of people and more dangerous when encounters occur. Delaying hunting at viewing areas like the Katmai Preserve and Wolverine Creek until after viewers are gone for the year would help minimize attack risk.
- Stephen Stringham
Stringham holds a PhD in Ecology and a MS in Wildlife Management (from UAF). He is director of the Bear Viewing Association.