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The Consequences of the Legal Bear Hunt in Katmai

Map of Katmai National Park and nearby Katmai National Preserve

This map shows the geographically close relationship between the National Park Service managed areas of Katmai National Park (where hunting is illegal) and the Katmai National Preserve (where hunting is regulated by the state of Alaska). For better image detail, click here.

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.

Jim Stratton
Senior Director, NPCA Alaska Regional Office

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All this diatribe is, is an anti-hunter statement. If the state must issue a permit for a bear, that in itself is a limit to how many bears will be harvested. Of course the tree-hugging writer cannot fathom this and states there is "no limit" on the amount of bears that one can harvest. I could conclude from the writer's statement that as long as I had a permit, I could harvest as many bears as I could-- kind of like maybe going squirrel hunting on the back forty........Pure rubbish!!!!

I think rather than anti-hunter, it's a pro-bear statement. Jim is speaking specifically about hunting bears in a Park Service managed area that was protected in-part to protect bears and bear habitat. As is pointed out in the article, the state of Alaska estimates that the harvest should be between 14 and 18 a year, but that the state has no problem giving out permits for 34, then 35 the next season. When the state doesn't follow their own guidelines, and when the land manager (Park Service) doesn't have the ability to protect a national resource (the bears), as a national park advocate, wouldn't you agree that this is a problem?

Shouldn't the salmon population and general availability of food determine the bear population in a balanced ecosystem? Granted, the mere presence of people in the area has thrown the ecosystem out of whack to some degree, but it seems the number to be KILLED should be adjusted to the actual population trends, not the human demand for KILLING a bear for sheer pleasure or selling fuzzy hats.

And who on earth came up with the term "harvested" to describe the act of KILLING a 700-pound, fairly intelligent animal...? It's not like you're picking an ear of corn or gathering strawberries in a basket. So I suppose if people decide to use the term "murder" to describe bear hunting, that's no worse than using "harvest" -- pick the term that suits your agenda, eh?

I'm not totally against hunting although I'm sure you'll disagree. But at least call it what it is. I'd give the hunters a little more slack if they were out there with atlatls, spears, and bows & arrows giving the bear some sort of sporting chance, but most humans are too chicken to attempt that. And rightly so.

-- Jon

Sporting chance is right! Yeah, out of those spotter planes and hit the ground and hump the brush with a Ben Pearson that's giving the bear a fighting chance. I can remember once reading a bumper sticker in back of a pickup truck which read: "a huge gut pile is a happy hunter"....hopefully, the guy was a poor shot. Good points Merryland!!

Reminds me of one of Ed Abbey's famous quotes:

If people persist in trespassing upon the grizzlies' territory, we must accept the fact that the grizzlies, from time to time, will harvest a few trespassers.

Like Merryland, I've always had a bit of a problem when land managers use the word "harvest" when it comes to big game hunting. A bear is not a blackberry. And elk is not an eggplant. A moose is not a mango. Subsistence or sport hunting (or sportfishing, in fact) for food is one thing. Do so just to hang a dead aminal trophy on the wall is entirely another.

I'm not an expert in game management, but the state of Alaska should be. What I think is so surprising about this story, is that the state is going against its own guidelines for the bear hunt. If they have decided that 18 should be the upper limit of bears hunted/harvested/killed/, then why would they give out permits for twice that number? What's worse is the Park Service can't do anything about it, even though it impacts a park resource they are supposed to be managing. The ANILCA is complicated, but it's also 25 years old. Why not refine the legislation and remove hunting from Park Service manage lands altogether? I'm not sure how we can claim we are preserving and protecting bears when we allow them to be killed as trophies on park land.

Jeremy, right off hand do you know if illegal bear poaching is a serious problem in Alaska. Some years ago there was quite a bit of bear poaching in the upper regions of Northern California. I'm not sure if there is a huge demand for bear parts (paws & penis organs...etc.) these days, which pays very well for it's aphrodisiac said by certain Asian communities. This is a deadly business which law enforcement has extreme difficulty controlling. Definitely not legal harvesting by any means.

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