Dip in Kenai brown bears linked to liberalized harvest quotas

A 2010 federally sponsored study is the first to deliver a reliable count of the Kenai Peninsula’s brown bear population. Last week a Kenai National Wildlife biologist explained the study during a presentation at the Pratt Museum in Homer. The Museum is preparing to launch a new summer exhibit all about bears, specifically brown and black bears.

John Morton speaks to an audience at the Pratt Museum. PHOTO BY QUINTON CHANDLER/KBBI
John Morton speaks to an audience at the Pratt Museum. PHOTO BY QUINTON CHANDLER/KBBI

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The number of brown bears on the Kenai Peninsula fell from about 582 to less than 500 between 2010 and 2015. That’s according to John Morton, a Kenai National Wildlife Refuge biologist.

“It has to do with the fact that harvests have been liberalized by the Board of Game since 2012. So our harvests [have been] higher in the last couple of years, particularly in 2013 and 2014,” said Morton.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service paid for Morton and his team to spend part of their summer counting brown bears using a method called mark recapture. Mark recapture is pretty much what it sounds like. The researchers caught the animals, marked them, released them and then they tried to recapture the animals they’d marked.  Morton’s team marked the bears by collecting their hair and analyzing their DNA.

“And the key here is it’s not the number of animals we detect with DNA it’s actually our recapture rates. That goes into a model and we base our population estimate not on the number of bears we detect but actually on the number of bears we mark,” said Morton. “Obviously you can see from the slides it was pretty complicated both logistically and statistically.”

Morton says before this count there had never been an “empirically based population estimate of Kenai brown bears.” The dense tree cover on the peninsula made “conventional” aerial surveys impractical. Morton’s presentation was only the first on a schedule for the Pratt Museum’s upcoming exhibit on bears. Scott Bartlett, Curator of Exhibits at the Pratt plans to throw the work of scientists like Morton in with works by local artists to create a vibrant exhibit. He admits even he doesn’t know exactly what the end product will look like.

“Because we don’t know what all the content from the talks are going to be and what all the art is going to look like. I think the broadest description is it’s going to look like an art exhibit. And there will be some supporting interpretive content drawn from the presentations,” said Bartlett.

Bartlett hopes local artists will be inspired to create pieces that reflect the facts provided by the guest speakers. This way he believes the exhibit will manifest a range of different perspectives.

“You can explain a subject with narrative and data or you can interpret a subject with art. They’re just different ways of understanding the same subject, the same themes,” said Bartlett.

Jeff Sellenger, the Kenai Peninsula Area Management Biologist for the Department of Fish and Game, will give the next presentation December 16th. He’ll speak about bear management.

“And some other bear ecology topics like the relationship of bears and salmon and diet and environment,” said Bartlett.

The exhibit will be on display May 6-July 31, 2016. No artwork has been submitted yet. Bartlett asks that interested artists confirm their participation by March 1st.

Quinton Chandler is a reporter at KTOO in Juneau.

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