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Living with Grizzly

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Managing grizzly discussed in Sandpoint

On a chain of islands off the southern tip of Alaska lives a behemoth of a bear – the Kodiak Island Brown Bear. Over 3,000 bears live in this area of 3,588 square miles (5,000 square miles in the entire archipelago) and 14,000 residents – and they do so surprisingly well, offering lessons for other areas, like our own, where the grizzly has come to live. At least, that’s the belief of Alaska Fish and Game bear expert L.Van Daele, who lives on Kodiak Island and spoke to a crowd of locals at the City Forum last week.

Successful living with the grizzly bear, at least on Kodiak Island, involves an approach of finding the middle ground, an activity that might be difficult here in the lower 48 where bear supporters and bear opponents seem to become increasingly polarized in their opposing viewpoints, often moving to extremes of opinion.

It was 1929 when the first movement began to protect the Kodiak bear – and the movement was begun by an organization of Alaska hunters. It was these hunters who first recognized the sometimes 1,700 pound bears, the largest land carnivore in the world, as a commercial resource in need of protection.

In 1941, the Kodiak Wildlife Refuge was formed, and the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game was charged with the conservation of the bear.

Conservation – that’s an important word when it comes to mingling the grizzly with human habitation. Because conservation doesn’t mean bears are never killed – doesn’t mean bears are given free run over rancher’s cattle – doesn’t mean the bear has more rights than the people who live in the same area, which seems to be one of the greatest fears of bear opponents.

On Kodiak, problem bears are killed. On Kodiak, limited tags are given for both a spring and fall hunting season of these often record-setting bruins. And on Kodiak, people are educated in how to live with bears. “Bears are said to be unpredictable,” Van Daele explained. “But we’ve learned that if you understand the bear, if you know where it’s coming from and what it’s doing, they’re very predictable.”

Kodiak has achieved a success living with the grizzly that’s enviable – and one that brings millions of dollars into their economy each year. On the surface, those lessons would seem transferable.

But Kodiak is a self-contained, small ecosystem. Its human population lives in a relatively concentrated area. There are less than 20 miles of paved roads on the islands; less than 80 miles of roads altogether. Although there are over 1,000 miles of logging roads leading into the Sitka spruce that cover the area’s mountainsides, those roads are limited in use. And some of the bear’s strongest supporters have been area hunters – folks who want to see the bear managed.    Managing grizzly bear in a much more complex area, like the US-Canada Transborder Region, which includes northern Idaho and western Montana as part of the area where grizzly are struggling to regain a foothold, is more difficult. And that was the subject of a week-long series of meetings, talks, paper presentations and brainstorming, of which Van Daele’s presentation on the Kodiak bears was just one part. It’s called the Border Bears Workshop, and it included all agencies involved in grizzly bear management. And it was followed by the winter meeting of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC). What comes out of this meeting sets the direction for bear management in the coming year.

According to Wayne Wakkinen, a senior wildlife biologist for Idaho's Department of Fish and Game, that meeting, "went pretty well. This meeting focused on small populations of bears. It's the first one I know about where that was the focus." For Wakkinen, that's important as there's only 25 to 30 grizzly bear in the United States portion of the US/Canada Transborder region - grizzly bear territory. "It's nice to get everybody together that's working in that field."

For Wakkinen, the most valuable part of the week came on Tuesday night, in a facilitated, public discussion designed to identify issues and solutions from the public perspective on the problems that prevent growth of our small grizzly population.

"We identified four major topics, and strategies for dealing with both positive and negative aspects of those, and presented it to the IGBC; access, economics, regulation and education."

Wakkinen spent his time working at the "regulation" table. "One of the big concerns was the public feeling we're getting regulations shoved down our throats, and the agencies aren't listening to our concerns. Hopefully the IGBC hears that one. There's a big mistrust of agency folks, and we need to be more open and honest with the public."

There was strong support for more local management of grizzly populations. "We didn't have total agreement on the level of this management, just that it would be within existing rules and regulations and using best available science," he said.

"None of this was real earth shaking," he added, "It was mostly common sense. I was surprised by how strongly people felt about the need for a greater education program about the bears."

That's a desire Wakkinen agrees with. "There's a lot of misinformation about the grizzly," he said. "For example, we haven't re-introduced a single grizzly bear to this area - every bear we have here is a local bear." But rumors persist that problem bears from Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks have been trucked into our back yard - or back forests.

A griz trapped near Bonners Ferry last year after he showed himself too comfortable around people was a bear that had wandered down from Canada; it was moved to the Upper Priest Lake area and, when it ended up trapped again, was moved into British Columbia. There not only have been no grizzly moved here purposely, Wakkinen explained, but, "there's no plans to bring any bears in."

Perhaps greater education efforts would result in greater support for grizzly populations; because Wakkinen believes there's not a lot of support for the bear right now among the public. "As far as the situation up in Kodiak goes, they got local support (for the bear). Not just acceptance, mind you, but support. And in part, that's because there was an economic benefit (to the community) by conserving the bear. Here, I think a lot of people are neutral about the grizzly."

That neutrality might come about because the bear currently has so little impact on most of the population - people develop opinions, usually negative, about the grizzly when they run into problems with it; either when some of those regulations are being 'shoved down their throat,' or when their access to the backcountry is limited.

"Mostly, we'd like to see those responsible for bear management recognize there can be an impact on both the community and the economy," explained Nancy Hadley, Chairman of the Idaho Fish and Game Commission. "I think bear management needs to be more of a grassroots thing, moving from the top up instead of the top down." Hadley would like to see a focus on things like stewardship logging, whereby people could manage their forest property and, with education, do so in a way that could be beneficial to the bear.

Sterling Miller is a senior wildlife biologist with the National Wildlife Federation and vice president for the International Association for Bear Research and Management, a professional organization for the world's preeminent bear biologists. He was also a major organizer of last week's event.

"I'm very pleased with the workshops and the response we had," he said. "We didn't receive a single, negative comment." That support for working on small bear population issues is critical, he says, for the bears in the US/Canada Transborder Region.

"This population is at a very high risk of being eliminated," he explained. "Whenever you have a population that small, one or two unexpected additional mortalities could tip them over into extinction. It's important we find ways to allow them to grow."

Although recovery goals for the grizzly bear in this area are modest - amounting to about 100 bears in a diverse geographic region - those goals would require the current population to almost triple in size.

"That's a long way from being achieved," he stated. "We can't exclude people from the equation. We have to find ways where both people and bears can succeed. This workshop helps establish a good basis for continuing a dialogue that will lead to the recovery of these populations."

Kodiak Island has been successful in living with their bears because it's a cooperative effort with a shared goal. The Border Bears Workshop indicates our own area is looking to accomplish the same thing.

Workshop sponsors: National Wildlife Federation, US Forest Service, US Fish & Wildlife Service, The Wildlife Society, MT Dept. Fish, Wildlife & Parks, ID Dept. Fish & Game, WA Dept. Fish & Wildlife, Northwest Section of TheWildlife Society, British Columbia Habitat Conservation Trust Fund, Int'l Association for Bear Research & Management.


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Landon Otis

Tagged as:

wildlife, conservation, Nancy Hadley, Kodiak Island, grizzly bear, Wayne Wakkinen, Sterling Miller

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