A brown bear fishes at Anan Creek on the mainland southeast of Wrangell. (Photo courtesy of Cindi Lagoudakis)

Hunters will be allowed to shoot a brown bear on the islands around Petersburg and Wrangell in the fall. Alaska’s Board of Game agreed to open a fall season after local residents testified about concerns over what’s seen as an increasing number of bears on the islands of central Southeast Alaska.

The islands of game management unit 3 are home to smaller and less dangerous black bears. In the last few decades residents have reported sightings of the larger and more dangerous brown bears. Bears are able to walk and swim from the mainland to these islands.

Max Worhatch of Petersburg proposed the fall hunt. “I feel like the bear population’s been growing,” Worhatch told the board. “In our lifetimes it has. When I was a kid there was no brown bear on this island, they were never seen, nobody saw them. It appears now that probably due to the lack of hunting pressure on brown bear that they’re starting to move over from (game management unit) 1B. It’s been going on for a number of years, we’re seeing more and more on the island. People are picking them up on game cameras.”

Worhatch asked for a fall season similar for game management unit 3, similar to that on the mainland, unit 1B. Worhatch said he’d like to take a brown bear while moose or deer hunting in the fall. He said the hope was to keep brown bears from increasing their numbers on the island.

Petersburg hunter and former hunting guide Paul Lutomski told the board he’s seen multiple bears on the island and believes there’s a healthy population here. “A lot of these bears that are being seen by others are in areas that are heavily recreated and I think it’s only a matter of time before there’s an incidence with a bear and a person,” Lutomski said.

The board voted down similar proposals from advisory committees in Petersburg and Wrangell in 2015. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game at the time opposed the hunt over concerns with the number of sows that would be shot and impacts to the bear population.

The department’s Sitka area management biologist Steve Bethune raised a similar question during this month’s deliberations. “The fall season as I mentioned will coincide with other hunts so there’s likely increased incidental take,” Bethune said. “And again I guess the question the board needs to discuss is do we have conservation concerns? Do we want to manage this for sustainability or do we want to limit expansion of this brown bear herd or brown bear population into unit 3?”

There’s already a spring hunting season. Five bears have been shot in that hunt since it opened in 2005. The population on the unit 3 islands is unknown but Fish and Game believes it is low. There have also been two killed in self-defense and two illegal kills during that time.

“What we heard from the public wasn’t that they were interested in expanding this population, they wanted to slow down the increase of bears,” said board chair Ted Spraker of Soldotna. “Usually we base everything on science. This is probably more of a question of use and where the public wants to go with this one. Because again the science really doesn’t support an increase, at least not in my mind.”

Board members were generally supportive of the fall season, but disagreed on allowing a hunter to kill a bear every year.

“The one bear per year I do not think would really slow down the expansion or delay the establishment of bears on Mitkof Island, for instance,” said Larry Van Daele of Kodiak. “You’d probably take maybe an extra bear every ten years, or something like that. This is not biology but just kind of guessing. Having the expanded season however, including the fall season, I think you’d get quite a bit of harvest out of that. So that would be my preference would be to start off by expanding the season now and not consider the expansion of the bag limit at this point in time.”

The board initially voted down that amendment but later reconsidered and decided to allow a hunter one bear every four years, similar to the bag limits in other parts of Southeast. The fall season will be open in game management unit 3, namely Mitkof, Wrangell, Zarembo, Kupreanof and Kuiu islands.