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Alaska Bear Census Altered to Accommodate Cultural Diversity : Conservation: Natives' objections forced the government to scale back the study and look for ways to alleviate their concerns. They demand that the animals be respected and oppose concept of 'harvesting.'


ANCHORAGE — Native resistance to a government-funded brown bear census in the Kwethluk Mountains has prompted officials to scale back while a consultant to villagers comes up with other approaches.

Disagreement over the study, overseen by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, has renewed interest in "cooperative management"--a hybrid technique that incorporates both science and natives' observations.

"People are inventing a new system," said Charles Jonkel, a Montana-based biologist and an adviser to the Assn. of Village Council Presidents. "Some mistakes are inevitable."

The survey began last year after subsistence bear hunting rules were liberalized at the request of southwest Alaska natives. They objected to rules limiting subsistence hunters to one brown bear apiece every four years.

Federal managers in 1991 lengthened the subsistence season and increased each hunter's limit to one bear a year. But because there were no good estimates of the bears' numbers--and no forecasts on how increased hunting might alter the population--liberalized rules were tied to the census.

The study, scheduled to run through 1999, concentrates on a 1,000-square-mile tract, a small patch of the 26-million-acre Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta refuge. Experts say 90 or so bears range over the study tract.

Goals called for 30 bears to be fitted with radio collars in 1993, increasing to 45 bears in 1994. But biologists who recently completed radio-collaring bears wound up adding just nine more to the study after native Alaskans appealed to various state and federal agencies, and Fish & Wildlife managers in Washington ordered a reduced effort.

"Obviously we're disappointed," said Walt Stieglitz, regional Fish & Wildlife Service director in Anchorage. "The first choice of game managers is to know what the population level is and know what the trends are."

Officials say rather than reduce the survey's impact, cutting back on the number of bears collared this year could lengthen the census because it would take longer to collect valid data. Radio collars send round-the-clock signals so that a bear's travels and life cycle can be monitored.

Subsistence hunters killed 28 bears in the region last year and sports hunters took two, records show. Some villagers say liberalized hunts won't lead to more subsistence kills, since regulations have only legalized a routine practice without apparent declines in the number of bears.

In Bethel, lawyer John Starkey said natives sought to change regulations that required hunters to deliver bear skulls to wildlife managers for tagging.

Starkey said the native Yupik Eskimos believe that practice is disrespectful to bears.

Villagers raised the same complaints over outfitting bears with radio collars. They also worried about eating meat from bears that had been tranquilized with the chemical that anesthetizes bears for the 30 minutes or so it takes to attach a radio collar and complete other tasks to mark an animal for study.

Game managers say the drug leaves a bear's system in 48 hours and cannot enter the food chain. They say radio-tracking is a widely used technique that produces reliable data.

But Stieglitz says that those worries show his service could have done a better job of explaining itself.

For instance, eliciting support from native groups and adding their signatures to the study agreement would have been a step toward cooperative management, he said. The agreement is signed by the service and the state Department of Fish and Game.

Cooperation has worked for Fish & Wildlife projects elsewhere, notably in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta goose management plan and in the Kilbuck caribou plan in southwest Alaska. Both are supported by native Alaskans.

Dave Stearns, Fish & Wildlife Service manager for the Yukon-Kuskowkim Delta refuge, said he was considering daylong briefings in the villages to explain how the agency planned to manage bears.

Stieglitz said there's no deadline for suggestions from Jonkel, the natives' consultant, although plans for next year will get under way soon. Alternatives to radio collars suggested so far include possible DNA tracking and use of cameras to count and track bears, as well as field trips with area residents.

"But to get a fix on a population, you have to know what's happening in the total sense, not just a portion of the population," Stieglitz said.

"There's no way you can do that running around on the ground in a snow machine or ATV (all terrain vehicle). That's not putting anyone down; that's just a fact of life."

Starkey, who represented the Village Council Presidents in an unsuccessful lawsuit to stop the bear census, said the survey is a hard sell. Villagers have traditionally reserved bear hunting for an elite few; the natives believe their hunting grounds have been violated, he said.

"The common term you hear (in game management) is 'harvest'--the idea that people grow the animals and harvest them," Starkey said.

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