Grizzly bears wandering out of their winter dens in the eastern Interior this
spring may be in for a lethal surprise -- for the first time, hunters can kill
the animals after attracting them with bacon grease, doughnuts and other
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game hopes to see as many as 81 brown bears killed in an area north of Tok to help boost the moose population for human consumption. It's part of a broader program in the region that includes aerial shooting of more than 100 wolves this winter.
While the plan has widespread support among hunters, who say predator control is necessary to let moose stocks rebuild, wildlife protection advocates say the program in hunting unit 20E is unnecessary, irresponsible and potentially dangerous.
||"They have no idea how many bears are out there and no idea what impact those bears are having on moose," said Karen Deatherage of Defenders of Wildlife. "There simply isn't any science to justify these programs."
After years in which lethal predator control in Alaska was put on hold due to public opposition, the practice has picked up speed since 2002. New legislation transfers responsibility for the killing to private individuals acting under Fish and Game's authority.
Wolf control resumed last winter in two areas. This year, aerial and land-and-shoot efforts are occurring in five areas, from the middle Kuskokwim to the Canada border, and targeting more than 500 wolves. To date, more than 250 have been killed.
But biologists have long known that brown and black bears can also be voracious predators, particularly of newborn moose calves. Studies around McGrath showed that bears killed 40 percent of calves over a three-year period; estimates from 20E suggest grizzlies caused 65 percent of the calf mortality during the 1980s.
To help thin bear numbers in areas where predation is thought to be a serious problem, the Alaska Board of Game has cut hunting fees and raised bag limits. Hunters around Tok currently can kill two grizzlies a year.
But the board's efforts haven't done much to stem grizzly populations, so last year it approved a broad predator-control program just for brown bears. Among the tools available to managers to increase the bear kill is baiting.
The practice is common for black-bear hunters and, while controversial, has long been permitted under state hunting rules in most areas of Alaska. A citizen initiative to ban the practice lost by a substantial margin last November.
Baiting black bears is particularly popular among bow hunters. Typically, the hunter sets out aromatic foodstuffs such as grease, dog food and pastries for several days in a row, and continues bringing bait after bears begin visiting the site. With the bears habituated to the food source, the hunter can wait in hiding to make the kill.
Using bait to hunt grizzlies would be a new experience for Alaska hunters. Brown bears are larger than black bears, though the grizzlies around Tok are not as large as the monster, salmon-fed bears found in coastal areas. In the eastern Interior, adult grizzlies typically weigh between 350 pounds and 700 pounds, but can grow larger, said Fish and Game spokeswoman Cathie Harms.
Grizzly hunters in the new 20E program don't have to use bait, Harms noted. But if they do, they're likely to use the same methods as black-bear hunters and will be limited by the same regulations, she said. Bait stations must be registered with the department and can be no closer than a quarter-mile from any road or trail, and a mile from houses or cabins. They must be marked. After the baiting season, the hunter must clean up the site.
To prevent hunters from taking too many grizzlies along the Taylor Highway, Fish and Game will limit the number of bait stations. Hunters can shoot only boars, or sows without cubs. The meat can be left in the field but the hide and skull must be brought to a Fish and Game office to be measured and registered.
Unlike the wolf-control programs, in which pilots can sell the pelts, there is no financial incentive for hunters to shoot grizzlies in game management unit 20E. Bear hides, claws or other parts cannot be sold, Harms said, though there is some discussion within the department about creating an incentive program for bear hunters.
As a result, no one knows how successful the bear-control program will be, or who will participate.
"Some people have an interest in helping with wildlife management and want to do their share" by shooting several grizzlies, Harms said. Others may simply want to collect bear hides and skulls. "In either case, this allows them to contribute to a game management program."
Fish and Game began issuing permits April 1 to hunters interested in participating in the grizzly control effort. Bag limits will remain open until a maximum of 81 bears are killed.
Many sportsmen around Tok are happy to help out, said Terry Brigner, chairman of the Upper Tanana/Fortymile Fish and Game Advisory Committee.
"They're approaching it as a necessity," Brigner said. "We're getting an enormous amount of (hunting) pressure" in the area, he said. "If we don't do something to maintain a pretty high moose population, it's going to affect hunting opportunities for an awful lot of people.
His advisory committee had wanted to see incentives to draw more bear hunters to the area. But all their ideas -- same-day airborne hunting, the ability to sell hides and allowing nonresidents -- were shot down.
"I guess we'll just have to wait and see how effective this thing becomes," he said. "How many people want to wind up with five bears?"
Opponents of the bear-kill effort express doubts about whether the program is needed at all. They point out that Fish and Game uses outdated estimates of moose, bear and wolf populations from the region rather than specific counts from the predator-control area, and that the slowly reproducing grizzly stock could suffer long-term harm if too many are killed.
"We could essentially wipe them out of that area," said Deatherage.
Other scientists have said that a few bears can be responsible for a substantial portion of the calf mortality in an area, she said: "You could take out 60 bears and still have two that do all the predation."
And baiting itself could create problems for hunters and area residents, Deatherage said. Brown bears are more territorial and aggressive than black bears, which could make them unpredictable at a bait station. Sows with cubs, which can't be shot, could also become accustomed to human food and eventually become nuisance bears, she said.
In spite of its potential problems, hunters in the region are glad to see the program, Brigner said. Between last summer's fires, which burned more than a million acres in the eastern Interior and are expected to create good moose habitat for years to come, and the prospects of reducing predation for several years, "We have a fantastic window here to develop a moose herd that could be very impressive," he said.
In the long run, the bear- and wolf-control programs could end up benefiting everyone, Brigner added: "If you can produce more ungulates, you can maintain more carnivores too. Just because you reduce carnivores for a period doesn't mean you're going to destroy them."
Daily News reporter Joel Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 257-4310.