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Too many Kenai bears die, no hunt this year

9/19/2006

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Twenty-three Kenai brown bears have died this year, mostly shot by people protecting themselves or their property, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

That death toll is higher than the area management threshold, which will shut down the peninsula's Oct. 15-31 grizzly season for the second year in a row.

The state's goal is to hold human-caused brown bear deaths on the Kenai to 20 a year, averaged over three years, with no more than eight of those dead bears being sows older than 1 year. The current three-year average is 19, with seven grown sows killed.

"Many of the bears killed this year and in the recent past are the result of bears getting food rewards around humans," said Thomas McDonough, the department's assistant area biologist for the peninsula.

Among the most tempting deathtraps for bears have been poorly secured household garbage, salmon carcasses dumped by the Russian River, fish coolers and backpacks, McDonough said.

One bear died in a traffic accident this year near Cooper Landing, he said. Investigators are trying to determine whether another was killed illegally.

The 21 others were killed in defense of life and property or, in the case of seven cubs, orphaned by shooters and then put down by department personnel or presumed dead. Alaska State Troopers killed two bears that were deemed threats in the Seward area.

The closure comes at a time when some peninsula residents say the bear population seems to be growing.

Billie Hardy, for instance, has seen more scat around her Kenai River home this year, and neighbors are complaining of a growing bear hazard.

"We don't ever go on a walk without a firearm," said Hardy, whose husband guides caribou hunters, though not on the peninsula.

McDonough said the department's study of the bears' movements and reproduction indicates a stable or slightly increasing population, though the number remains unknown.

"There might be more bears than in the past — we don't know," he said. "Certainly there are more people on the Kenai Peninsula, both living and recreating, than 20 years ago."

The bear death rate has been more or less stable, he said, though the cause of death has shifted from hunting in the 1990s to incidental killings.

Larry Lewis, a Fish and Game wildlife technician, said he sees reason to hope that the number of bears killed by peninsula residents will drop.

He has worked with the city of Kenai to distribute bear-resistant garbage containers to residents this year, and said for the first time in years police have not received calls about nuisance bears.

The program offers residents $200 containers at a cost of $50, subsidized by grants from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Conoco Phillips. Homer and Seward also are considering container programs, Lewis said.

"There's a lot of positive things that are going on," he said. "It's kind of a snowball effect."