Alaska might be the last frontier in the United States, but even it has limits when it comes to consumption of natural resources. And in Katmai National Park and Preserve, it sure seems like state officials are pushing the brown bear population beyond the limits that a healthy population can endure.
Back in 2003, according to the National Parks Conservation Association, Alaska wildlife biologists stated that the bear population in the preserve portion of the park could tolerate the hunting of 16 brown bears every other year. However, recent takes have been more than twice that, with 35 bears killed in the 2005 fall and 2006 spring seasons combined and 34 bears killed during the 2003 fall and 2004 spring seasons combined.
“The current level of hunting is in direct conflict with the mandate from Congress to preserve this area as a premier bear-viewing site,” says Jim Stratton, the NPCA's regional director in Alaska. “Trophy hunters are killing two times the number of bears that can be killed to maintain legal levels of bears.”
But that's not the only threat to Katmai's bear population, which roams throughout the park and the preserve. For 22 years the portion of the state-owned Kamishak Special Use Area that's adjacent to and just east of McNeil River State Game Sanctuary but which falls within the boundaries of Katmai National Park has been closed to bear hunting. Now, though, the Alaska Board of Game is proposing to open the area (in purple on the map) to bear hunting.
If the over-harvesting in the Katmai Preserve is allowed to continue, and the Kamishak Special Use Area is opened to hunting later this fall as the Game Board decided two years ago, the region's bear population could be significantly stressed.
The two proposals, says Stratton, are "both impacting the same bear population."
"The bears at Katmai don't know political boundaries and they roam unaware through both conservation and hunting areas," he says.
Fortunately, there seems to be a good deal of push-back against the proposal to open the special use area to bear hunters. Stratton tells me that groups as diverse as the Alaska Professional Hunters Association and conservation groups have petitioned the Game Board to reinstate the ban on bear hunting in the area.
"You've got greenies to professional bear hunting guides" opposing the measure, he says.
Another possibility exists that the matter could be legislatively removed from the Game Board's jurisdiction. Stratton says a bill just introduced to the Alaska Legislature, if enacted, would place the special use area within the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, where bear hunting is prohibited.
As for the heavy hunting pressure in the Katmai Preserve, NPCA is recommending a variety of options, ranging from stopping the bear hunt entirely to shortening the hunting season or limiting the number of hunters.
Both of these topics likely will surface when the Game Board convenes in Anchorage in early March to review game issues.