Darts, Not Death
Kinder, gentler predator control favors relocation over killing
A black bear heads for the woods to elude capture as Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Toby Boudreau prepares for a chance to dart the animal mid-May outside McGrath. Helicopter pilot Rick Swisher and Boudreau were eventually able to flush the bear from the woods and into the open, where it was darted for transport to McGrath for relocation. (Photo by Erik Hill / Anchorage Daily News)
Wildlife veterinarian Kimberlee Beckmen of Fish and Game's Fairbanks office marks tags on a tranquilized bear. Dated messages were added warning not to eat bear meat laced with tranquilizer within two weeks of capture. (Photo by Erik Hill / Anchorage Daily News)
Yearling black bears fill a makeshift shelf in an Alaska Department of Fish and Game DeHavilland Beaver aircraft as five tranquilized bears are loaded for relocation away from the McGrath area in mid-May. Nearly 100 bears were relocated by biologists this spring. (Photo by Erik Hill / Anchorage Daily News)
A black bear eyes biologists after emerging from a tranquilizer-induced slumber inside a barrel trap in McGrath. The bear was being held temporarily until a full load of bruins was ready to be transported by an airplane hundreds of miles away from McGrath. (Photo by Erik Hill / Anchorage Daily News)
Doctoral student Danielle Garneau of Penn State University and biologist Shelly Szepanski of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game weigh a tranquilized, freshly delivered black bear as helicopter pilot Rick Swisher and biologist Toby Boudreau head back into the field to dart more bears in mid-May. (Photo by Erik Hill / Anchorage Daily News)
Regional research biologist Patrick Valkenburg of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks fills the agency airplane with six tranquilized black bears, including this cub, before flying his cargo to an undisclosed location. (Photo by Erik Hill / Anchorage Daily News)
Working just past a bear's large canine tooth, a biologist digs with an elevator tool to dislodge a small tooth that will be examined to determine the bruin's age. (Photo by Erik Hill / Anchorage Daily News)
Spooked by the helicopter, the bear broke into a lumbering run through the spruce and birch forest along the Kuskokwim River. Its gleaming black fur contrasted starkly with the springtime-brown forest floor, making it easy to follow.
Pilot Rick Swisher circled and sashayed over the animal, herding it toward open ground. He wanted to give biologist Toby Boudreau a clean shot.
When the bear reached the muskeg bog, Swisher swooped alongside it. The helicopter's wind blast plastered the bear's fur against its skin, but the wide-eyed animal never looked back at the noisy monster flying a few yards off its flank. It galloped through water a foot deep, intent on reaching the forest cover ahead.
It never made it.
As the helicopter passed over the bear, Boudreau leaned out, aimed his gun and fired. Direct hit.
Boudreau, the area biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in McGrath, was practicing a form of predator control, trying to eliminate black bears from the area before they could kill newborn moose calves. In a different era, Boudreau might have used a shotgun and left the bruin dead in the bog.
But times have changed. Instead of double-ought buckshot, Boudreau fired a tranquilizer dart. When the bear conked out a few minutes later, it was whisked off to McGrath by helicopter, then flown 200 miles away and dropped off in an area so remote no one would complain about one more bear.
The bear relocation project in McGrath this spring is the biggest ever attempted in Alaska and the latest in the state's long, controversial history of predator control. As in previous programs, the goal is to put more meat into hunters' smokehouses and freezers.
But after enduring protests from past attempts to control predators, Fish and Game has taken a different approach. It is focusing on a smaller area than ever before and isn't killing animals. By eliminating all predators -- bears, wolves and even hunters -- from a narrow strip of Kuskokwim River corridor; biologists hope to create a nursery ground for moose that will help stock the surrounding area.
If it works, McGrath could provide the blueprint for a new style of predator control: efficient, cost-effective and noncontroversial.
The work this spring seemed to go well, said Boudreau. The McGrath team removed nearly 100 bears -- so many they ran out of tranquilizer. Moose calf survival looks good so far. Area residents are happy that something is finally happening to help boost moose stocks. No one has proposed a tourism boycott or demonstrations.
But even though McGrath was designed as a tidy, science-based program that should be welcomed by all, it has its detractors. Some question the science behind the experiment, its $60,000 price and even its kinder and gentler methods.
Critics at both ends of the predator-control spectrum -- those who want predators killed to boost game populations for hunters and those who want wolves and bears left alone -- say they don't doubt that removing predators will boost moose stocks but wonder whether the state should be involved at all.
Science at the Airport
Fish and Game's temporary field station on the McGrath Airport tarmac from mid-May to early June was a magnet for residents. They drove out in pickups and four-wheelers for the opportunity to feel a bear's beating heart as they ran their fingers through its thick fur.
Not everyone had the biologists' faith in the tranquilizers. One woman stood back as her husband and children examined a 300-pound boar, peeling back its lips to touch the 2-inch canine teeth and comparing their fingers to its long, curved claws.
"What's wrong?" the husband asked.
"It's breathing, that's what's wrong," she replied.
Working around the gawkers, biologists weighed each new bear as it arrived and recorded its length, girth and skull size. As Fish and Game veterinarian Kimberlee Beckmen took blood samples, Penn State graduate student Danielle Garneau punched eraser-size holes in each bear's ears and fitted in plastic tags. One can be used later to monitor the bear's movements and growth. The other was a Bush version of the expiration date on a package of bacon, warning hunters not to eat the tranquilizer-tainted meat for 15 days.
The bears never flinched for the ear piercing, nor when the biologists extracted a small tooth with pliers. Even the lip tattoo -- impressed on the inside of the animal's cheek with what looked like a notary public's stamp -- didn't faze them.
The bears occasionally exhaled a deep sigh or licked their lips, which made casual observers nervous. But Beckmen didn't administer any tranquilizer booster shots unless the bears started lifting their heads. "We want them to be sleepy enough that there's no chance they'll get up," she said, but not remain sedated for more than eight hours. The longer they stay under, the higher the risk of complications.
Once this spring, while flying out a load of bears in the back of a DeHavilland Beaver, Beckmen noticed one waking up. But when she waded into the mass of sleeping bears with a syringe of tranquilizer, another bear wrapped its claws around her leg.
After her heart slowed down, "I thought, 'Who do I give the drugs to first?' " she said with a laugh later. "I couldn't quite get the drugs mixed up fast enough."
During a two-week period at the end of May, Fish and Game flew more than 80 black bears and nine grizzlies to remote airstrips from 170 to 250 miles to the north and east. Fish and Game has relocated bears before to eliminate them as predators, but never this many and never this far away, said research project coordinator Patrick Valkenburg.
As part of the McGrath experiment, nearly a quarter of the bears wore collars fitted with radio transmitters. Valuable information is already coming in about their homing ability and their survival rate, Valkenburg said. In less than three weeks, two had already walked more than half the distance back to McGrath, he said.
Three others were shot by hunters, and more are likely to be killed by bigger bears they encounter in their new territory, Valkenburg said. It's a hard life in the wild, regardless where the animals end up, he said.
"The bears we drop off have as good a chance of surviving as if they'd stayed in their home range" near McGrath, he said.
Collars Unmask Culprit
The arrival of radio-collar technology in the 1970s radically changed predator-prey studies, said Valkenburg, a tall, thin 26-year veteran of the department. Biologists knew little about moose and caribou mortality until they could track animals year-round and determine when and where they died.
Radio-collar information changed the plan for McGrath. Area hunters had complained for years that the local moose herd was dwindling, and the Alaska Board of Game in 1995 authorized a five-year plan to increase moose stocks by removing 80 percent of the wolves. Then-Gov. Tony Knowles shelved the plan for lack of information.
But radio-collar studies in 2001 and 2002 found something interesting: Wolves aren't the only problem for moose in the area. Black bears pose an even greater danger to newborn calves, killing nearly one-third of the moose born every spring. Wolves kill the most full-grown moose, as well as large numbers of calves. Grizzly bears also kill both calves and adults.
When the board reauthorized the McGrath program in 2001, it took the new information into account. This time it called for removing all predators from a 520-square-mile experimental micromanagement area, or EMMA, for up to four years. Wolves were to be killed, while black and brown bears were to be relocated. The board also agreed to halt hunting while predator control continues.
The Game Board wants to see another 30 to 50 bulls available to harvest every year when hunting resumes. Valkenburg has no doubt the plan will work, if temporarily.
"If you remove wolves and bears for a year or two, the effect would last three, four, five years at least," he said. If winters are normal and hunting is limited, moose stocks could rebuild to twice the current density. Studies show the habitat can support that population, he said.
But the eradication program suffered a setback in April when Gov. Frank Murkowski refused to let Fish and Game shoot the 30 to 35 wolves that remained after the trapping season. His decision left two-thirds of the EMMA wolf population intact.
Valkenburg said the wolves next winter could erase any gains made by the moving of bears this spring.
Though Fish and Game had preferred to leave the shooting to state employees in helicopters, other people are happy to have the public do it. This spring, the Alaska Legislature approved a measure allowing just that. It would let non-state employees shoot predators from airplanes, or shortly after landing, if they were participating in an approved predator-control program. Murkowski has yet to sign or veto the bill.
Bob Magnuson, a lifelong McGrath resident and an air taxi pilot, hunting guide and former wolf hunter, thinks Fish and Game is wasting its money flying out bears and refusing to shoot wolves.
"The state doesn't have to spend a damn cent on this," he said. "Residents will take care of it" if land-and-shoot sport hunting is allowed again. The practice was banned by ballot initiative in 1996.
Magnuson believes that wolves, not bears, have caused the moose decline around McGrath and that the state's failure to control wolves created the current dilemma. But even private hunters could never exterminate the wolves in Alaska, he said.
"There's no possible way to wipe out all the wolves in this state. And no one wants to," Magnuson said. But, he added, "if the state doesn't do something, people are just going to go out and murder them. It's approaching (an issue of) self-preservation."
Hunters Can't Find Moose
Magnuson would get few arguments in Nikolai, a village of 100 residents upriver from McGrath. At the graduation potlatch in Nikolai's Top of the Kuskokwim School, pans of lasagna and pots of spaghetti dominated the dinner. There were no moose roasts or ribs and just one pot of moose soup.
Not long ago, moose dishes would have covered the table, said Nick Dennis, a heavy-set Athabaskan grandfather. But the moose are nearly gone.
"This fall, if I don't get a moose it will be six years. That's terrible," he said. Now 75, he has hunted every fall since he was 7. "Usually my wife and I each get one."
Others people have similar stories. Last fall, Willie Petruska, 64, came home empty-handed for the first time in his life. Down the river near Takotna, Clinton Goods shot a nice bull last fall but never saw one the season before.
It's not for lack of trying. Nick Dennis said he burned 150 gallons of gas cruising the riverbanks last season. At $4 a gallon, that's an expensive hunt. On the other hand, 500 pounds of meat from a young bull moose goes a long way in a village where frozen hamburger is more than $4 a pound and a New York steak costs $13.
And one moose often isn't enough, said Mary Ellen Kimball.
"If you have a family, it doesn't last long," she said. Moose is shared with relatives and elders and at potlatches. "Even if you have just a little chunk of meat, you share."
Fish and Game statistics bear out the sentiment that moose are scarce in Game Unit 19D East, which surrounds the EMMA. Residents of Nikolai, McGrath and three other villages have seen their combined harvest decline from about 150 moose a year to roughly 90 during the 1990s.
Mike Fleagle, chairman of the Board of Game and a longtime McGrath resident, has been a staunch proponent of the EMMA program. Even though the wolf population hasn't been addressed, he's hoping for better times now that the bears have been removed.
"I think that once we get the moose population built back up to where predation isn't affecting the human harvest, then everybody's happy again," he said. "And that's the way it was. There was plenty of moose."
But some question whether the state has made a case for predator control around McGrath. Paul Joslin of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance charges that Fish and Game hasn't done enough research to justify the "draconian" efforts of removing every predator from the EMMA.
Moose counts in recent years show the moose herd is stable or increasing, he said.
"If they're going to experiment, they need to show the moose are declining. But we don't have that," Joslin said.
He also questions the basic premise of the McGrath experiment. It's one thing to remove a few predators from an area, he said. It's another to displace every wolf and bear. That's bound to cause a ripple effect in the ecosystem, Joslin said, around McGrath and where the bears are dropped off.
"Some people look at this like it's a field of wheat that you crop and manipulate. But there are lots of others, including hunters, whose vision of game management is managing in a way that comes as close as possible to letting nature run wild," he said. "If you take 90 bears out of one area and put them somewhere else, that's an impact. That's a major impact."
The McGrath office of Fish and Game is built for two, but it was crowded last month with biologists preparing for the day ahead. As Boudreau loaded tranquilizer darts and Beckmen mixed drugs, Valkenburg looked over aerial maps and Garneau cleaned guns.
On the floor, Fish and Game biologist Don Young bolted heavy steel cable into snares big enough to catch a grizzly bear.
There aren't many grizzlies in the McGrath area, but they're deadly, Valkenburg said. Biologists tracked one bear last year that killed three cows and five calves in a 10-day period, he said.
Fish and Game set nearly 100 snares along the Kuskokwim and Takotna rivers and caught three grizzlies. Six others, including a 700-pound boar, were caught like the black bears.
Between the snares, tranquilizers, helicopter time and airplanes chartered to spot or transport bears, the removal effort cost about $60,000, Valkenburg said. That doesn't include department salaries and equipment or the moose research already under way.
Because the bears and wolves will trickle back in when the removal effort ends, the state wants local hunters and trappers to take over. "We'd much rather have people solve their own problems," Valkenburg said.
They may have a hard time replicating Fish and Game's efforts, however, without helicopters, incentives or regulation changes. Hunters might harvest more black bears if they could use traps and if laws were amended so bear hides and parts could be sold, Valkenburg said. The grizzly harvest might rise if the Legislature relaxed the guide requirement for nonresident hunters in 19D East, he suggested.
Trappers might kill more wolves if Murkowski approves the new land-and-shoot regulations. Some McGrath residents are itching to resume the practice, said Eep Anderson, a former Iditarod musher and longtime wolf hunter.
"Tell 'em to give me a Super Cub," said Anderson, who once shot nearly 100 wolves in a single winter. With wolf numbers as high as they are now, he said, "a man could have a field day."
One question the McGrath program should answer is whether small-scale predator removal programs can produce the desired increase for local hunters. Valkenburg is optimistic. If it succeeds in producing up to 50 additional moose, and local beef costs $4 a pound, each additional moose is worth about $2,000, he said.
"Even if you had to do it every year, the cost-benefit ratio would be extremely positive."
Is This Humane?
One evening the helicopter carried in a sow and two yearling cubs. The mother was thin after a winter of feeding her offspring and wet from crossing a creek. When it arrived in McGrath, it was hypothermic.
Beckmen and Fish and Game biologist Shelly Szepanski treated it as if it were a 180-pound family pet. They placed hot water bottles on its thick paw pads, fired up portable propane heaters and covered it with insulating blankets.
When that didn't work, Szepanski snuggled under the blanket with the bear, heating it with her body. Beckmen gave it an intravenous injection of warm fluid. After three hours of intensive care, the sow's temperature was back to normal.
"I slept a lot better" knowing the bear didn't die, Beckmen said. The lives of its two yearling cubs also hung in the balance, she said.
But she bridled at the suggestion that this was humane treatment of the sow. To achieve the goals of the EMMA program, it would have been more humane to shoot the bear in the woods, Beckmen said.
"We don't want them to suffer," she said. But chasing a scared bear with a helicopter, bruising it with the tranquilizer dart, sedating it, then releasing it in hostile territory 200 miles away is hardly humane.
"It's not kinder and gentler for the animals. It's kinder and gentler to public perception," Beckmen said.
Public education may be the best result of the McGrath program, according to Vic Van Ballenberghe, a retired federal biologist and former Game Board member who now does predator-prey research in Denali National Park through the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Game managers have known for decades that removing predators can improve prey stocks, he said. But they have done a poor job of explaining what Van Ballenberghe calls "the fine print" in game management, that moose and caribou numbers also are affected by harsh winters, habitat and hunting pressure.
As a result, many people believe that predator control alone can boost moose or caribou numbers, he said.
"Our failing was to explain the implications, that it's not always predation" that causes moose or caribou to decline. "There's winter, habitat, hunting -- factors that can be as or more important than predation."
Some previous control efforts have backfired, he said, because the prey species ballooned beyond the land's capacity to feed them. It happened in the Nelchina Basin in the 1960s and '70s, leaving moose and caribou stocks in worse condition than had the wolves been left alone.
If the McGrath program demonstrates to Alaskans the complexity in managing game populations, it may be worth the effort, he said.
Another retired game manager and current Game Board member, Ted Spraker, agreed that predator control doesn't guarantee better success for hunters.
But Fish and Game's former Soldotna-area biologist was confident that predator control would work for McGrath. It's a small area with good prospects for supporting twice as many moose. Predator removal, even if temporary, will help the moose rebound, he said.
More important, he added, "I think the public deserves to have one experiment completely finished. Two, three, four years, whatever it takes, to demonstrate what a moose population will do" when predation is removed.
Fish and Game may never have enough research to satisfy opponents of predator control, Spraker said. But fears that the McGrath program might ultimately fail because it produces too many moose are misplaced, he said.
"From a former manager's viewpoint, that's the kind of problem I dream about -- too many moose."
Daily News reporter Joel Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 257-4310. Daily News photographer Eric Hill can be reached at email@example.com.