A black bear at Anan Bear and Wildlife Observatory near Wrangell in 2017 (Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)

After announcing there would be no spring bear hunting in the state, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has partially changed its mind. All non-resident brown and black bear hunts will remain closed through May 31st. Spring bear hunting for Alaska residents remains open during that time.

“You know this was all about people moving around the state, specifically about hunters coming up from the lower 48, but also about people going from different communities in Alaska,” said Ryan Scott, assistant director of ADFG’s division of wildlife conservation. “Right now we don’t have any concerns about bear populations. It remains to be seen how many people will take advantage of it but it’s really good that resident hunters can get out there and take advantage of the bear opportunities.”

A Thursday letter from Fish and Game commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang reminds resident hunters to abide by health mandates, including social distancing and intrastate travel. That in-state travel between communities is prohibited except for supporting critical infrastructure or for critical personal needs.

Originally the Department closed non-resident and resident bear hunts until the end of May, via emergency order, in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Alaska. Even though Commissioner Vincent-Lang rescinded a portion of this closure, he emphasizes that general hunting has not been identified as a critical personal need, as defined by Governor Mike Dunleavy’s health mandates.

Scott said the department plans to work with the state’s Board of Game to accommodate hunters who’ve lost the opportunity.

“We recognize that there are lots of non-resident hunters planning to come to Alaska right now both for black bear hunts and brown bear hunts,” Scott said. “We’re going to be looking for opportunities to move those permits around if we can to give those hunters the chance to come and do it again. We don’t know what it’s going to look like yet and it’s going to take some time to sort all that out. It’s important to recognize that we’ve issued drawing permits for next year already. So it’s going to take some finessing to distribute hunters across the landscape.”

Companies that accommodate out-of-state hunters can charge anywhere from a couple thousand dollars for a week-long self-guided black bear hunt to tens of thousands of dollars for a fully guided hunt from a wilderness lodge or tour boat. Brown bear hunts for non-residents are only allowed with a licensed guide or close relative who is a resident.

Eli Lucas owns Alaska Coastal Hunting, a guiding business based in Petersburg. He said the spring bear season is about half of his income for the year but he understands the closure had to happen.

“We’ve offered refunds or switching dates but we really don’t know where to put people,” Lucas said. “We actually need more season if we’re going to put somebody to a full calendar because we don’t have room for the next years. And so, the other guides are in the same position. It’s a pretty complicated issue really.”

Outfitters, lodges, boat rentals and float plane companies will also lose business with the closure.

Fish and Game said they will announce further details in the coming days on how these spring bear hunts should be conducted by residents while complying with the Governor’s COVID-19 mandates.

Meanwhile, no closures are anticipated for other spring hunting seasons. And sport fishing remains open in Alaska with no current plans for closure. Washington State has a temporary closure for its sport fishing along with the Columbia River in Oregon.