Predator Control Can Create Strange Hunting Bedfellows

Anchorage Daily News / Outdoors / Craig Medred / February 23, 2003


Nobody has more reason to be outraged by plans for predator slaughter in the McGrath area than your average Alaska hunter.

Wait; on second thought, I'll take that back. Nonresident hunters have even more reason to be outraged. Not only will they get caught in the fallout sure to come from the environmental community if predator control begins, they will gain nothing.

Nonresident hunters are even more unwelcome in this area than they are in much of the rest of Alaska.

Despite that, the state doesn't seem to mind taking those hunters' money and shelling money out for sure-to-be-controversial predator-control programs.

For those unaware of the economics of wildlife management in Alaska, an explanation is in order. Everyone needs to know where the money comes from.

The bulk of it -- about 80 percent -- is federal revenue sharing from excise taxes Americans pay on firearms, ammunition and hunting gear. Because Alaskans make up such a small minority of shooters in the nation, their contribution to the whole is negligible.

The rest of the money -- matching funds the state must put up to get federal money -- comes largely from state license fees. Nonresident hunters who pony up large tag fees to hunt any Alaska big game pay a big chunk of these fees too. Another chunk comes from the fees Alaska resident hunters pay to enter lotteries for drawing permits.

As in all lotteries, there are far more losers than winners, and the people who put on the lottery get to keep most of the money. This would be fine if the state limited the use of these funds to the management of the animal populations involved in permit hunts, but there's no guarantee of that.

Permit money could end up contributing to a McGrath predator slaughter.

Whatever the case, the bulk of the money will come from nonresident hunters, perhaps putting them in the interesting position of paying for the slaughter of predators to grow moose to benefit subsistence hunters, seldom the friends of nonresident hunters.

It's not hard to believe that some of these people might be a little upset if they knew how things worked in Alaska, but they don't.

Much the same can be said for most Alaska hunters. The bulk of them now live in Alaska cities, or what pass for urban areas in this part of the world.

Many of these urban hunters suffer the same knee-jerk reaction in favor of predator control that environmentalists have in opposing it.

The simple truth is that predator control works. If your goal is solely to increase populations of ungulates, killing predators does it.

Norway and Sweden are two small countries that have grown moose populations as big as Alaska's in a much smaller area by cutting their predators to one -- humans.

Humans are easier to control than wolves or bears. Wolves and bears kill what they can, usually the most vulnerable animals in a prey population -- the old, the sick, the weak, the young. But wolves and bears are also happy to kill the inattentive, the unlucky, the stupid or the lazy.

Humans, on the other hand, kill primarily what wildlife managers tell them to kill. To keep moose populations large and healthy, they can be directed to shoot only the biggest bull moose or the youngest bull moose.

That is the case in large parts of Alaska now. Wildlife managers limit hunters to the big bulls and the yearling bulls likely to be killed by winter weather if they're not shot in the fall.

In other areas, notably the Matanuska Valley and the developed portion of the Susitna Valley, wildlife managers have recruited hunters to shoot cow moose as populations in those areas have grown larger than the habitat will support. There's no quicker way to knock a population down than to start removing productive females.

The only time wildlife managers run into a problem getting people to shoot things is when the shooting gets difficult.

All of which brings us back to the problems in the McGrath area. The state says it needs some shooting done there, but of bears and wolves -- not moose.

Unfortunately, hunting bears and wolves is hard work for humans, bad news for the McGrath moose.

McGrath moose, scientists have concluded, are being held at low levels by wolf and bear predation. Unless predator numbers are reduced, the moose population could remain low for a long time. It is hard for moose populations to increase when bears and wolves eat most of the calves every year.

The easy thing to do would be to liberalize wolf and bear seasons and let humans shoot them.

But the biologists say that doesn't work. The McGrath area doesn't have enough hunters interested in killing bears and wolves. The hunting is too difficult, and to be successful in the heavily wooded lowlands on the north side of the Alaska Range, you have to hunt hard, very hard.

Most hunters don't want to do that. Or at least, most Alaska hunters don't want to do that.

Nonresident hunters might be willing to take a shot at it if they were given a reasonable opportunity. Nonresident grizzly hunts now start at a cost of more than $10,000. Who knows how many nonresidents would dream of testing themselves against a grizzly or, for that matter, a wolf if the cost were cut to several hundred dollars for a flight to McGrath and another $1,000 for an air charter out of there.

But nonresidents can't hunt grizzly bears on the cheap. The state has a law saying nonresidents must hire a guide. This has allowed guides to drive the price of their services way up.

Guides will tell you the state law is necessary because hunting bears is so dangerous, but the truth is, the rule requiring nonresidents to hire guides is nothing but part of an Alaska guide-employment act.

If the state were worried about safety, it would do something about the thousands of wannabe hunters who move here every year. Many of them know nothing about Alaska or about hunting. Some of them have never even been hunting before.

But once they've been here a year, they qualify as residents and are free from the guide requirements. They can go get into trouble hunting anything they want, or at least anything in an area open to the average Alaska hunter.

This area keeps getting smaller and smaller.

Nelchina caribou have been "subsistence-only" for years. The same goes for moose on most of the west side of Cook Inlet and up into the Yentna River valley. Some have suggested the moose in Game Management Unit 13 will go subsistence-only this year too.

That would restrict Anchorage hunters, at least those with limited income, to the Kenai Peninsula and the Railbelt. Wealthy hunters, of course, have more options.

There is usually some remote corner of Alaska that is open for moose hunting by hunters without special rights, and you can always fly Outside if it comes to that. More seem to do so every year.

Sometimes you have to wonder if hunting is dying in Alaska, and that might be the scariest thing about the McGrath proposal.

There was a time when a problem like this would be solved by people in the Bush. If they thought there was a problem with too many wolves and bears, they'd start shooting wolves and bears. They'd take care of the problem themselves.

Now they want the state to do it for them. And they want the people they don't want in Alaska to pay for it. It's almost enough to make me consider membership in some animal-rights organization.

Outdoors editor Craig Medred is an opinion columnist. Reach him at or 907-257-4588.

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