Starting October 1, 2007, the annual fall brown bear hunting season will open for three weeks in Alaska’s Katmai National Preserve. The state of Alaska has set no limit on the number of bears that can be harvested—putting the park’s bear population at risk from over-harvesting.
I bet you’re surprised. Brown bear hunting in a national park site?! Yep, here in Alaska national preserves are just like national parks with one exception: sport hunting is allowed. And in Katmai National Preserve, that hunting includes big, brown bears. Congress recognized that sport hunting should continue in this area when it established the park site as a national preserve. Current hunting regulations allow hunters to take as many bears as they want during the three-week fall hunting season.
But nearly three years ago, I became aware that something was amiss with the brown bear population in Katmai National Preserve. My bear-viewing guide friends in Homer, Alaska, were seeing fewer and fewer bears each year—which are a huge attraction for visitors. The National Parks Conservation Association investigated and found an almost 100% increase in the number of brown bears harvested since 2003 as the probable culprit. Specifically, we found:
- There has been an observable decline in the number of bears seen in Katmai National Preserve. Bear viewing guides today are seeing one-third the number of bears they were observing 10 years ago.
- In 2003, Alaska Department of Fish & Game estimated a sustainable harvest for Katmai Preserve at 14 to 18 bears per hunting season (fall and spring hunt combined).
- Bear harvest was fairly steady until the fall 2003/spring 2004 hunting season when the number of bears harvested doubled to 34 bears, with 35 bears again harvested in the next hunt which occurred in fall 2005/spring 2006.
The National Park Service is directed by Congress to ensure that any hunting that occurs doesn’t negatively impact park resources, such as wildlife. And Congress was very clear that the Park Service was to manage Katmai for “high concentrations” of brown bears. That’s the language included in the Alaska Lands Act that expanded Katmai and created the preserve.
Alarmed by the research that revealed over-harvesting at Katmai, local bear-viewing guides, photographers, the Park Service, and conservation groups, including NPCA, all provided comments on proposals at the Alaska Board of Game’s meeting in March 2007 to reduce the number of bears harvested during the hunting season.
At this meeting, the Park Service suggested a couple of ways to get a handle on the bear harvest: reduce the season and/or limit the number of hunters. Since the state of Alaska issues the hunting licenses, it would be pretty difficult for the Park Service to limit hunters through any kind of permit system tied to a license, but they can certainly shorten the season as a strategy to reduce the number of bears killed.
But the Board of Game ignored all of our proposals for action in Katmai National Preserve. Is this good park management? We don’t think so.
So today, NPCA, bear-viewing guides, former Board of Game members, and others sent a letter to the Alaska regional office of the Park Service [PDF] asking it to do nothing more than the agency already asked of the state of Alaska in March.
Of course, we’re not holding our breath. Even though the Park Service recognized a problem and wrote detailed comments to the Board of Game asking that the hunting levels be reduced, they are now reluctant to buck the state of Alaska.
Moreover, the Park Service has told us that there isn’t enough scientific data to show that 1) There is a problem and, 2) Hunting is the cause. This graph illustrates our concern. But something is clearly amiss and the Park Service should take a precautionary approach to managing Katmai Preserve bears. We feel it is incumbent upon the Park Service to do something about the harvest this fall.
What comes after this fall? We’ve also asked the Park Service to begin a collaborative management plan with the state of Alaska that defines “high concentrations” of brown bears and then tightly manages the bear hunt to ensure that high concentrations continue. The state has developed a bear management plan for Kodiak Island that serves as a good model for how to manage for specific population goals. In the meantime, however, the hunt continues at Katmai and we can only hope that the localized brown bear population doesn’t get hammered any further while the Park Service tries to figure out what it can do.
Senior Director, NPCA Alaska Regional Office