Unit 4 Brown Bear Management Strategy

— Recommendations of a citizens and agency brown bear management advisory team – June 2000

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Upward trends in the number of brown bear hunting guides and bear harvest levels and increased tourism in Unit 4 during the past few years have raised questions about sustainability, hunt quality, and user conflicts. In July 1998, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) published "Unit 4 Brown Bears Past, Present, and Future: A Status Report and Issues Paper" describing these and other Unit 4 brown bear management issues. In the fall of 1998 the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) began public involvement for a Saltwater Shoreline-based Outfitter/Guide Analysis that would establish limits on numbers of commercial recreation hunting and nonhunting guides in Unit 4. Also that fall, the Alaska Board of Game (BOG) heard a public proposal to make major changes in brown bear management in Unit 4. Public interest and support for dealing with brown bear management issues in a comprehensive manner was high.

The Unit 4 Brown Bear Management Team was created in January 1999 with 14 members (later 15) nominated by organizations representing the following interests: guided hunting, nonhunting guiding, nonhunting bear use, resident hunting, tourism, subsistence hunting, Native corporations, environmental interests, ADF&G, the BOG, and the USFS. Our purpose was to review issues of resource management and any human activities in Unit 4 that affect brown bears, such as hunting, viewing, human access, and habitat alteration; agree on brown bear management goals and objectives; determine what changes are needed in current management to meet those goals and objectives; develop key elements of a management strategy that reflects those changes; and convey the strategy to the appropriate resource management agencies and regulatory boards with recommendations for their action. Members worked to find common ground on the issues and were committed to making all decisions by consensus if possible.

The team has agreed on the following elements of a comprehensive management strategy for brown bears in Unit 4. The strategy is organized in five sections by major management topics. This summary includes a list of the team’s recommendations for each section of the management strategy.

Section 1: Hunting regulation and management

The team recommends that annual mortality and nonresident harvest be capped at approximately the current levels and that ADF&G should produce and distribute public education and hunting ethics materials to try to reduce wounding loss and female mortality.

Biological management of brown bears should be by four major island populations (Admiralty, Baranof, Northeast Chichagof, and the rest of Chichagof). From the standpoints of harvest distribution and habitat information, however, a finer resolution is possible and desirable. Existing Guide Use Areas are the most realistic and useful geographical subunits for managing hunting guides

Annual human-caused mortality of all brown bears averaged over three years should not exceed 4% of each island’s population estimate. Annual human-caused mortality of females averaged over three years should not exceed 1.5% of each island’s population estimate. We recommend that the USFS maintain a moratorium on Unit 4 hunting guides until the appropriate analysis is completed and through attrition reduce the number of hunting guides to a maximum of 20 over the long term.

If hunting needs to be restricted further in the future, the recommendations for future management actions include, in order of priority: voluntary guided harvest reductions, mandatory guided hunter reductions, season adjustments, nonresident drawing permits, resident drawing permits if resident harvest exceeds 70% of total harvest.

Section 2: Management and mitigation of development activities and solid waste

The team recommends agencies and the public adopt guidelines for mitigating the effects of land and resource development on bears. The guidelines address: siting and management of industrial camps, habitat impacts, harassment of bears, new road construction and access, and siting of recreation facilities.

We have recommended priorities for road closures and monitoring on Northeast Chichagof in comments to the USFS about road and travel access management in the Hoonah Ranger District. We asked ADF&G to promote and distribute its policy for dealing with bear-human conflicts more widely in an attempt to reduce defense of life or property kills (DLPs)

On the issue of solid waste and bears, the team has developed guidelines for managing food and solid waste in brown bear habitat. Costs of solid waste management are prohibitive for small communities. We have identified the need for better municipal ordinances and enforcement of proper handling of solid waste. We recognize the importance of identifying additional funding sources to help communities solve solid waste problems. We have asked the Southeast Conference to take a leadership role in convening a forum to identify and work toward regional solutions to community solid waste problems.

Section 3: Viewing and tourism

As tourism grows in Southeast Alaska, there is increasing demand for more bear viewing opportunities. Some team members argued strongly for more viewing areas to meet that demand. However, creation of new viewing areas on the Pack Creek or McNeil River models was opposed by other team members who feared that it would result in more areas being closed to hunting of bears. Rather than try to modify or diminish the existing bear viewing areas (such as Pack Creek) in any way, we propose a new management area concept that establishes new areas, "Brown Bear Special Use Zones," in which hunting and viewing are managed as equal in priority and compatible. A key objective in the management of such hunting/viewing areas would be to avoid habituating bears to people. The team devised guidelines for site selection and management of the special use zones but did not want to definitively recommend areas before in-depth field analysis is conducted. We recognize that particular geographic circumstances must exist to permit the necessary relationship between people and bears in such an area.

Among other recommendations on viewing, the team: developed guidelines for behavior and viewing tips for remote locations where bears are not habituated to people, endorsed ADF&G guidelines for site selection and management of areas where bears are habituated to people, and recommended that, in addition to developing high quality viewing on public lands consistent with other resource considerations, agencies encourage high quality viewing on private lands.

The team encourages the visitor industry and government agencies to examine available research on viewing satisfaction and jointly develop a set of guidelines for the responsible marketing of bear viewing in Alaska. Among the guidelines that should be considered are:

  • Where possible, use photographs that show animals within their habitat.
  • Develop language for operators to include in brochures to help set the viewing context.
  • Work with media, journalists, and other promoters of Alaska to ensure their products set realistic expectations and promote responsible viewing.

Because the costs of developing, managing, and staffing viewing areas are high, a need exists for additional funding for brown bear and other wildlife management. The team supports establishing additional funding for management of brown bears and other wildlife through a fee which would be levied on nonhunting and nonfishing wildlife users, that is broad-based, that is fair and equitable (levied on both residents and nonresidents), and that is not levied through and partially absorbed by operators.

Section 4: Social, economic, and cultural aspects

The USFS Saltwater Shoreline-based Outfitter/Guide Analysis for the northern Tongass National Forest is the primary mechanism for regulating nonhunting human/bear interactions in Unit 4 in the immediate future. It will also have a great effect on social, economic, and cultural aspects of human use of bear country. As a result, the team believes strongly that the USFS should provide the necessary priority for funding and staffing to keep the outfitter/guide analysis on schedule. We also recommend that the USFS, the State of Alaska, and other entities developing land use, tourism, and other plans for the area, cooperate so that plans are compatible.

The team has made several recommendations regarding how carrying capacity is determined. Among them:

  • Re-evalute carrying capacities regularly and adjust them based on actual effects of use.
  • Set carrying capacities below their apparent maximum limits.
  • Allocate carrying capacity between commercial and noncommercial use and consider restricting some types of commercial use in some areas during certain times of the year.
  • Consider the effects of existing private inholdings and impacts to subsistence when determining carrying capacity.

The team wants natural resource managers to recognize Admiralty Island’s historical and current special status in regard to brown bears. We recommend the USFS complete a Comprehensive Admiralty Island Plan and work collaboratively with ADF&G by providing funding and other assistance for studies of brown bear populations, density, and behavior on Admiralty. We also recommend restrictions on construction of long-term tent camps and other infrastructure on Admiralty National Monument.

Particular areas and types of habitats like estuaries and anadromous fish streams have an attraction for both bears and humans. The team recognized that these "Human/Bear High Use Zones" may require additional management attention to ensure continued access by bears to these key habitats, and that human/bear interactions are not detrimental to either species. We propose that in these areas which are important to bears and where human use is high and is causing problems or has the potential to cause problems, two tiers of management be implemented. Tier I with the most use and impacts would have commercial permit stipulations for group size and frequency and types of use. Noncommercial users would have a set of voluntary guidelines except in extreme cases. Tier II, areas with less immediate problems, would have voluntary guidelines for all users. Both types of areas would be closely monitored by managing agencies.

The health of Unit 4 bears is closely tied to the economic and social health of Southeast Alaska communities. Many residents, while welcoming new opportunities for economic growth, are trying to protect their communities' unique qualities and to preserve their way of life. It is important to ensure that local residents benefit directly from protecting bears. The team supports increased efforts to make sure that local residents benefit from commercial guiding and outfitting opportunities. We have recommended several ways that state and federal agencies can aid rural communities and promote community stability. Among them are: make community stability a cornerstone of carrying capacity decisions, and have agencies assist communities in planning for future growth. We also asked the USFS to complete a socio-economic impact analysis as part of its outfitter/guide analysis.

Section 5: Research and monitoring

Recommendations for research and monitoring are primarily directed to two agencies, ADF&G and the USFS. ADF&G should focus efforts on population assessment. Although the most compelling need for population data currently appears to be on Northeast Chichagof, interest in south Admiralty argues for an ADF&G pilot study there to see what is needed for a good population estimate. ADF&G should investigate ways to get more funding for a more complete population study on Admiralty.

The USFS needs to help fund ADF&G population work in Unit 4 and support research on Admiralty Island. In roaded areas, it is important that USFS management be actively involved in bear protection. This requires:

  • identifying opportunities for bear viewing and deciding which of these should be managed for viewing opportunities,
  • actively assisting ADF&G, through funding and other means, in the monitoring of the Northeast Chichagof bear population,
  • monitoring human use trends,
  • monitoring the distribution and frequency of DLP bear mortality,
  • having a strategy for dealing with unacceptable levels of bear displacement or mortality.

Finally, a monitoring and compliance plan needs to be a part of the USFS Saltwater Shoreline-based Outfitter/Guide Analysis and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the northern Tongass National Forest. There also needs to be some formalized method of testing the predicted effects once the plan is implemented.

To comment on the Unit 4 Brown Bear Management Strategy or for more information please contact:
ADF&G Division of Wildlife Conservation
PO Box 240020
Douglas, Alaska 99824
(907) 747-8449