Researchers and managers with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game presented grim data about brown bears in Haines on Monday. High mortality rates have wildlife biologists concerned about the future of the local population, as a record number of bears have been killed in defense of life and property this year.
Anthony Crupi has been conducting a study of the brown bear population in Haines for the past three years. He and his team have been tracking the local bear population with GPS collars for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
On Monday, Crupi told the Upper Lynn Canal Fish and Game Advisory Committee that the mortality rate for the 65 bears that have been collared so far is 23%.
“This is extraordinarily high,” Crupi said. “The number of bears that Haines has lost this year is unprecedented. We didn’t see a lot of females with cubs of the year this year. It’s not like there’s a big batch of cubs coming forward the next few years. There is going to be a break in the cohort that I think we will see in the cohort for some time that starts this year.”
Some of the collared bears died of natural causes. Low salmon returns and a poor berry season were a stress on the population. Some bears even killed their own species for food.
And the number of bears killed in Haines by hunters, law enforcement and residents protecting their property reached record levels this year. For the purposes of managing hunts, Fish and Game’s regulatory year starts in July and ends in June of the following calendar year. Until now, no more than 22 bears had ever been killed in Haines during one regulatory year. Fish and Game Biologist Carl Koch said that number has nearly doubled in the past few months. .
“We are not quite halfway through the regulatory year and we are at 40 total human mortality. For the whole calendar year it’s 47.”
The guideline harvest level for brown bear hunting in the Upper Lynn Canal is 16 bears. That includes both the fall and spring hunt. Hunters have already reached that number this fall. Most of the bears killed during the fall were female, which is more harmful to the population according to Fish and Game.
Koch said he was not sure what that means for bear hunting next year.
“All options are being considered. We are well aware there are quite a few folks who are against closing the brown bear hunt. There are some that are demanding it. It could be anything from no action, everything stays status quo, to partial closure, to male harvest only or close it after the first female or any number of things,” Koch said.
Haines residents have experienced more problems with bears in the past two years. Police have reported a huge spike in incidents of bears causing damage to property in and around Haines. That has led to more kills in defense of life and property.
In 2019, the borough convened a bear task force to come up with ways to improve the situation. Task force member Derek Poinsette said that the pandemic made community outreach difficult this fall.
“It does feel like we, myself included, did not do a very good job of really getting out ahead of this,” Poinsette said. “We had a bit of a bear catastrophe here in Haines. I hope we all can look at what we did wrong, and try not to repeat this.”
Fish and Game has repeatedly advised residents to do a better job securing bear attractants. Some residents say there is not much else that can be done.
Stuart Dewitt is also a member of the bear task force. He said that more bears are damaging property because the local landfill has become more secure.
“Yeah everybody needs to do a good job with their garbage. That’s what I don’t understand. Nobody was doing a worse job with their garbage than they were five years ago. I think it’s all just outfall of the dump being more secured,” Dewitt said.
Recently, the Haines Borough asked residents to provide descriptions of the property damage they have sustained from bears and the dollar amount of the loss. The borough is hoping to compile this information in order to make a case for more resources from the state to address the problem.