Editor's note: Four years ago we brought you a video that touched more than a few nerves. The subject was hunting brown bears in Katmai National Preserve and raised the question of whether it was really sporting or ethical. While the resulting uproar died down, it's creeping up again as Park Service officials seek public comment on a proposal to allow two sport-hunting guide businesses to operate in the preserve. In this guest column, Bill Sherwonit takes a look at the issue.
Back in October 2007, a local TV crew went to Kukaklek Lake, on the upper Alaska Peninsula, to investigate a legal but controversial brown bear hunt in Katmai National Preserve. The story and video that the team brought back shocked and upset many Alaskans, hunters and non-hunters alike. The reporting of KTUU’s Megan Baldino and images shot by freelancer Dan Zatz of Homer showed that hunters – some of them guided – are able to approach within several dozen feet of bears and kill animals that have grown highly habituated to people after spending weeks in the close company of non-threatening wildlife watchers and anglers.
The public furor eventually died down, but a number of bear-viewing guides, biologists, and conservationists have continued to monitor and protest the way the Katmai Preserve bear hunt is conducted. State wildlife mangers and National Park Service officials have continued to insist the hunt is perfectly legit, despite abundant evidence that it violates fair-chase hunting ethics, creates conflicts between recreational user groups (specifically hunters vs. bear viewers), and, in some places, has resulted in diminished bear-viewing opportunities and, perhaps, decreased numbers of bears. Those interested in learning more about this issue can check out an article I wrote for the Anchorage Press in February 2009, “The Bears of Katmai”.
The issue of bear hunting in the Katmai National Preserve – allowed by provisions included in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA – has re-surfaced of late, because the National Park Service (NPS) is putting together a prospectus that will newly allow two sport-hunting guide businesses to operate in the preserve and is actively seeking public comment on that prospectus. In fact the agency has put together an online “newsletter” that presents some background on the Katmai hunt, guide areas, and harvest limits, and also solicits public input.
It’s most unusual that the NPS would request public feedback in this way for a guiding concession, which speaks to the highly controversial nature of the Katmai hunt (to be clear, sport hunting of bears is NOT allowed in adjacent Katmai National Park, only the preserve). It’s disheartening enough to many people that any sort of “sport” or trophy hunting is allowed in a national park unit; but the nature of this hunt – which some witnesses have likened to a shooting gallery – makes it even more appalling. Park managers insist they are limited in what they can do, as long as “high concentrations” of brown bears continue to inhabit the preserve, which the state insists is true; apparently the NPS, too, has concluded this is so. Given ANILCA’s mandates and the fact that the state regulates seasons and bag limits, the Park Service’s main control over hunting, when the preserve’s bear population is healthy and stable, is through the guiding concessions. Thus the significance of this new prospectus.
Jim Stratton of the National Parks Conservation Association is among those to applaud the Park Service for both actively seeking public input and for its proposal to limit the brown bear harvest under each of the two concession contracts, an action that he says “is a first.” The Park Service, he says, “should be thanked for taking these first steps at making this process more transparent.”
But Stratton emphasizes “first steps.” The Park Service, he adds, hasn’t gone far enough in making its case that future management of Katmai’s guided bear hunts will ensure a sustainable harvest. “The primary concern,” he writes, “is the lack of information and data on how the Park Service determined the maximum number of clients and the maximum number of bear hunts it is proposing. . . . While the newsletter is a good start, the decision to issue these two guided hunting concession contracts has not undergone a proper environmental review. The Park Service has indicated they intended to authorize these contracts under a ‘categorical exclusion’ within the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) which means they do not see the need for any further public discussion and will make the decision without further environmental analysis.
“NPCA and others,” Stratton continues, “are strongly encouraging NPS to review the proposed concession contracts, including maximum client levels and maximum number of bear hunts, in an Environmental Assessment (EA). Doing an EA would require the Park Service to put all their information and analysis about the scope of these hunting concessions into a single document and make it available to the public.”
Stratton points out that the guided-hunt bear harvest targets proposed by the Park Service “MAY be the correct numbers, but the Park Service does not provide any of the background data or analysis that led them to propose the maximum numbers found in their newsletter.” Furthermore, he stresses, “For NPCA this is not an anti-hunting issue. It is a GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTABILITY ISSUE [my emphasis] for determining the right level of hunting and making certain that determination is an open and publicly accessible process – through an EA.”
In short, if the prospectus process in this instance merits public comment – which it clearly does, given the contentious nature of the Katmai hunt – then it also merits a more open sharing of information. We members of the public shouldn’t have to accept the Park Service’s word that Katmai’s bear population is currently at a “high concentration” and will be maintained at such; in fact we don’t even know what that “high concentration” is, nor do we know whether certain parts of the preserve have become brown bear “sinks” because of concentrated hunting effort and the killing of highly habituated bears.
Neither does the Park Service explain why it has chosen a 7% harvest level as appropriate for the preserve, when target harvest rates for the entire Alaska Peninsula range from 5% to 10%. Given all that is known about the hunting of Katmai’s bears and the importance of these bears to other recreational groups – not to mention that this is part of a national park unit, where you’d expect standards to be higher – a reasonable person might expect the Park Service to choose the LOWEST possible harvest rate. If there is any place the NPS should err on the conservative side of bear hunts, it’s the Katmai Preserve. An EA would allow a more in-depth analysis of the most appropriate harvest rate and give the Park Service an opportunity to explain and defend its choice, if the agency insists on the higher harvest rate.
Stratton makes another point: The Park Service conducts EAs on all sorts of actions that are more benign than the killing of highly prized wildlife, for instance fixing historic cabins, installing fish sonar counters in streams and building a covered shelter to display a whale skeleton. Given that, “why won’t it do an EA on killing the iconic species in one of Alaska’s premier national parks?”
There are other reasons the Park Service needs to reassess its preparation of a prospectus and start over, taking an EA approach. For one thing, the information provided in the Park Service’s newsletter is insufficient and/or difficult to understand; in particular, I found the table and text on page 3 of the newsletter to be incomplete and misleading.
I would also take issue with the conclusions reached under “Environmental Compliance" on page 3, namely that “Adjusting the guide area boundaries and brown bear client limits are not substantial changes and are not expected to result in unacceptable impacts to park resources and values, including the brown bear population, OTHER USERS (BEAR VIEWERS) [again, my emphasis], wilderness character, or subsistence use.” I and others have already raised questions about possible unacceptable impacts to the brown bears themselves; while that point may be argued, there is little doubt that past guided hunts have substantially harmed other users, specifically bear watchers and bear-viewing guides, and that future operations will likely have similar “unacceptable impacts” to such people. I’m surprised and disheartened that the Park Service would so cavalierly dismiss and/or ignore this significant conflict. The fact that it has done so in the past is no reason to do so in the future.
Given that the Park Service’s call for public comments includes insufficient and/or misleading information, and, I would argue, that the agency reaches an incorrect conclusion under “Environmental Compliance,” I would urge the NPS to start over and begin the EA process.
Those who wish to learn more about the Park Service’s Katmai Preserve hunting guide concession prospectus should go to the online newsletter. A postal address for Lisa Fox, Katmai’s chief of commercial services, is provided but comments may also be emailed to Fox at [email protected]. Stratton also recommends ccing comments to the Park Service’s regional director, Sue Masica ([email protected]).
One more thought in closing. Some people, Larry Aumiller and myself among them, argue that there are certain places where managers need to consider the well being of individual animals and not simply populations. A highly respected bear biologist and the long-time manager of McNeil River State Game Sanctuary (now retired), Aumiller points to McNeil as one example. Katmai, he says, is another. As I quoted him in my Anchorage Press story, Aumiller explains: “What [biologists and managers] dealing with the Katmai Preserve issues miss is that bears are not interchangeable. If you kill the 10 most tolerant bears (which of course are the most likely to be killed) then you are going to have eight to 10 fewer bears to see the next few years, even though those ‘niches’ may be filled by less tolerant and more secretive bears. When I saw the harvest numbers go up in the preserve, I knew they would start seeing fewer bears there. And knowing what we do about bear home ranges and movements, I knew ‘McNeil bears’ were also being removed by hunting. It is well documented now that summer ‘McNeil bears’ are also fall ‘Katmai bears.’ The discussion shouldn’t be about population and harvest rates. The preserve issue is about a use that has nothing – or very little – to do with how ‘healthy’ a population is.”
Again, an EA would enable the Park Service to (re)consider whether the rules governing a hunting-guide concession – or more generally the hunting of Katmai bears – should be based solely on a region-wide “high concentration” of bears and harvest rates based on the overall population. It is more complicated than that and an EA would enable the Park Service to consider new approaches in how that agency, in coordination with the state, manages the various uses of Katmai bears, including hunts, guided or otherwise. Like Stratton, I would recommend a comprehensive review of the Park Service’s entire bear-management plan for the Katmai Preserve. It's something that is long overdue and Katmai's bears are dying for it.