The Alaska Board of Game loosened hunting rules in the giant state park east of Anchorage on Wednesday after grizzly maulings shook the city last summer.
Area Fish and Game biologists hope the changes lead hunters to kill some of the boldest bears in Chugach State Park before they wander into Anchorage and hurt somebody.
They also warned one of the new rules -- allowing bow hunters to go after grizzlies around popular Eklutna Lake -- could put park users in close contact with wounded bears.
"We're trying to reduce the number of bears slightly in some of these areas to get some relief for the public," Anchorage area Fish and Game biologist Rick Sinnott told the board.
"But if the fact that you're having a hunt here creates more problems than it solves, then I think you have to sort of keep that in your mind as you make a decision."
The Game Board is meeting at the Dena'ina Civic and Convention all week to decide on hunting rules for Southcentral and Southwest Alaska.
The Department of Fish and Game proposed the new brown bear hunts in the half-million-acre park, which serves as Anchorage's backyard playground.
Those changes, approved by the seven-member board, include:
* Opening less than half of the Eagle River drainage, several miles upstream of the Eagle River Nature Center, to hunters.
* Lengthening the brown bear season in the park by launching it in the fall, rather than waiting until January like the previous hunts.
* Creating an archery-only brown bear hunt in the Eklutna Lake valley.
The new hunts are meant to give hunters a better chance of bagging a brown bear in a region relatively crawling with grizzlies.
One of the board's sharpest critics, an environmental group called Defenders of Wildlife, had no problem with adding a hunt in the hard-to-reach upper Eagle River area.
"I think they (the board) did a good job you know, trying to balance the needs of multiple user groups," spokesman Wade Willis said of the hunt.
But the Eklutna Lake proposal, approved 5-2 by the board, poses a safety risk, he said.
It will be held in a family-oriented area with a well-maintained trail, campgrounds and cabins that could be a dangerous place for an injured grizzly.
Biologists said the state already lets bow hunters target moose and black bears in the area.
Still, Sinnott acknowledged the new hunt could be "problematic," given hundreds of people who use the area.
"We're definitely concerned about this and we'll watch it pretty closely," he said.
As they prepared to vote, board members talked about the precision of modern bow-hunting equipment and questioned the danger a hurt bear might really pose.
Soldotna Game Board member Ted Spraker worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state Fish and Game before retiring. When you wound a bear, he said, you either find it dead or you never see it again.
"Their first tendency is to get as far away from people and things that hurt them as they possibly can," he said.
65 BROWN BEARS
The park is part of a larger game management unit that includes Anchorage and Eagle River. Biologists figure at least 65 brown bears live in the region.
In 2007, the state opened portions of the park to the north and south of Eagle River to brown bear hunting, handing out three permits to hunters.
"It seemed to us it was going to be pretty easy to kill brown bears in the spring," he said.
It wasn't. None of the hunters got a bear.
Then over the summer, Anchorage saw a high-profile series of bear encounters that reminded the city its nearby salmon streams attract more than tourists.
Grizzlies mauled three people. Hikers and bikers were chased on popular trails.
Pressed to reduce the danger, local leaders started looking for answers. An Anchorage Assemblyman suggested the city hire a kind of "bear cop" who would shoot problem bears if necessary.
Biologists expect the new rules to lead to maybe two grizzly kills a year.
Sinnott and assistant biologist Jessy Coltrane said the new hunts aren't about targeting any specific bears that might be aggressive. Instead, they hope the least-cautious grizzlies are the same ones hunters are most likely to shoot.
"It tends to be the not-so-wary bears that cause the problems," Coltrane said.
Find Kyle Hopkins online at adn.com/contact/khopkins or call him at 257-4334.