With the number of dead wolves at more than 250 and climbing, the state is now setting its sights on grizzly bears.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game on Friday began issuing permits for hunters to use bait to kill grizzly bears near Tok as the state expands its controversial predator control program to put more moose and caribou meat in the freezers of Alaska hunters.
It marks the first time the state has allowed hunters to bait grizzly bears and the first time the state has targeted grizzly bears instead of wolves in its predator control efforts.
"It's something different," Fish and Game spokeswoman Cathie Harms acknowledged.
Unlike the state's aerial wolf control program, in which pilots and their shooters must submit resumes and be approved by Fish and Game before getting a permit, the only requirement for a grizzly bear permit is that hunters must be Alaska residents. State wildlife officials aren't sure what kind of demand there will be for permits.
State officials are expecting plenty of controversy, given the national debate Alaska's wolf control efforts have generated.
"Any time there's a predator control program, it comes along with a big helping of controversy," Harms said.
An estimated 135 grizzly bears inhabit the portion of Game Management Unit 20E where the program is being conducted and the state has established a quota of up to 81 bears for the first year. Cubs and sows accompanied by cubs may not be taken under the permit. Permits will be good from April 1 to June 30 or until the quota is reached.
The average harvest in all of 20E area for the past 15 years has been 14 grizzlies a season, despite regulations that allow hunters to take one bear a year. In an effort to increase that harvest, the Game Board last year changed regulations in the unit to allow hunters to take two bears a year. It's still too early to tell what kind of effect that change had, Harms said.
She was quick to point out the program is not an extension of the hunting season, even though permit holders will be able to keep the hide and skulls of any grizzlies they shoot but they do not have to salvage the meat.
If bait is used, sites must be registered with Fish and Game in Tok before bait is placed in the field and bait stations must be identified with signs. Bait cannot be used within a quarter-mile of public roads or trails, within a half-mile of garbage dumps or within one mile of houses, campgrounds or dwellings.
The grizzly bear control program is designed to help a shrinking moose population in the area by reducing the number of moose calves killed by grizzlies.
"If we can help more moose survive the first year, the moose population may be able to increase and provide more harvest for people," said state wildlife biologist Jeff Gross in Tok.
But critics said the grizzly bear program lacks the same kind of biology that is missing in the wolf control program, now in its second year. Biologists don't have a good idea what kind of impact bears or wolves are having on moose.
"We're opposed to it for the same reason we're opposed to aerial gunning," said Karen Deatherage, Alaska director for Friends of Wildlife. "They don't have sound science to justify these programs."
Baiting grizzly bears, which is illegal under general hunting regulations, is especially alarming, considering Fish and Game has opposed baiting brown bears for several years, she said.
The state is already conducting wolf control in the same area hunters will be taking grizzlies, though the bear control area is smaller (2,681 square miles) than the wolf control area (6,588 square miles).
As of Monday, aerial hunters with permits had killed 254 wolves in the five areas designated for wolf control.
News-Miner staff writer Tim Mowry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 459-7587.