Wolf Song of Alaska News

Predator Control: Alaska Grizzlies not Endangered Yet

Craig Medred | Sep 11, 2011

Alaska Dispatch

Predator control works. Let's get that out of the way right from the start.

Big predators in Alaska -- bears and bears -- don't survive solely on rodents and berries. They kill and eat big prey -- moose, caribou, Dall sheep and salmon, always salmon -- wherever and whenever they can. And right at the salmon is where the predator control issue begins to get sticky -- very, very sticky.

Alaska and its human-manipulated bounty of salmon is doing a great job of feeding predators. The state is not doing such a great job of feeding prey, or at least the state's most-favored prey. The most-favored prey would, we all know, be the moose. Moose own this distinction because the state highway system crosses a lot more moose habitat than caribou habitat, and where the few roads do make caribou habitat accessible to human hunters there is a sad, decades-long history of many people battling over how to shoot a relatively few caribou.

Almost anywhere caribou come close to the highway, somebody wants special hunting privileges, which has over the years led to a whole variety of permit systems intended to prevent most Alaskans, and especially those who got here last, from hunting caribou near a road.

If you've got the money for a $2,000 to $5,000 fly-out hunt, it's a different matter. But if you're Joe Average hunter, the philosophy in large parts of the state is screw you.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game could have long ago solved this problem with some pretty simple access regulations forcing hunters to hunt, but the privileged classes of roadside caribou hunters in this state would never have gone along with regulations requiring they hike at least a mile, or better yet two, from designated roads and trails, and use their cars and all-terrain vehicles only on those roads and trails.

No, no, no. This would require the expenditure of some effort, and for some odd reason there is a group out there that seems to want the words "hunter'' and "fat boy'' to be synonymous in the 49th state.

Part of the solution to make this happen has been to declare war on predators in the belief that if enough of them are killed the result will be a caribou or a moose behind every bush, and if there is a caribou or moose behind every bush, there will be plenty for wild-game meat of everyone to drive to, shoot, load and haul home.

Railing against predator control

There is a caveat to the rule that predator control works, and that caveat is that you can't grow more animals than you can feed. This should be obvious, but there are people in the state who clearly don't get it. Maybe they don't want to get it. Or maybe the scientists who should be leading them to the water are doing a poor job of explaining the situation. Some of those scientists are now railing against predator control.

They are hinting that grizzly bears in the 49th state could be in danger because of predator control.

No offense to the authors of the study -- all of whom are esteemed professionals and several of whom I know pretty well -- but that's bunk. Alaska now has some huge national parks and wildlife refuges that will protect bears forever in safe refugia, but even outside of those areas, the state appears to have plenty of bears.

Personally, I'd like to find someplace to hunt moose on the Kenai Peninsula where there is more moose sign than bear sign, not that I'd ever to expect to find a place with as much moose sign as in my back yard above Anchorage, which at the moment also happens to have plenty of bears.

Locally, not to mention the ubiquitous black ones, there have in recent weeks been a grizzly sow with a pair of 2-year-old cubs; a grizzly sow with three cubs; and a lone grizzly most probably a boar camping on the McHugh Peak ridge. The first trio was probably responsible for killing an adult cow moose back in June. They got lucky. It's not easy for bears to catch an adult moose or even a calf once it's a couple months old. Wolves do a better job of killing those moose.

Not many wolves get into Anchorage, for better or worse. Despite a certain newspaper's summer visitor guide claiming we "share the city'' with a pack, wolves only bump up against the edges of the urbanized area. They don't slip in and out of town the way bears do or even linger around the edge that much. The wolves I've seen over the years on the south side of the city were mainly hunting sheep in the front range of the Chugach Mountains. The bears, meanwhile, can appear anywhere.

We have a lot of bears in Anchorage. If large bear populations alone dictated low moose populations, it would be safe to say we'd have a lot fewer moose around Anchorage.

But, of course, things aren't this simple. Food is the key part of what dictates moose populations, especially winter food. Moose need good "browse'' to get them through the snow season. The best of it is sticks and twigs of willow and aspen. Most places, they need these species in concentrated pockets because winter snows often make it difficult to get around. People in Anchorage have cut the moose a break. We plow or pack a lot of roads and trails. Urbanization might have eliminated some amount of moose browse, but it has dramatically improved winter access to what is left.

The situation outside of Anchorage is different. Across much of the Southcentral region surrounding the city, moose browse is either buried in high mountain snow or none-existent below lowland forest. Fire has been held in check for decades in most of the region. The result is that forests have grown up to shade out the young aspen trees and the willow moose need for food. In many places, there simply isn't enough food to support many moose. If Alaskans really wanted more moose, they wouldn't worry about killing wolves or bears -- they'd set afire a big chunk of the Kenai Peninsula and the valleys of the Susitna and Yentna rivers.
Only we can't really do that because in the case of the Kenai fire might threaten communities or oil-and-gas infrastructure, and in the case of the Susitna and Yentna valleys, fire would most definitely threaten the many remote cabins that have been built in the past decade on lands given away or sold cheaply by the state of Alaska. And in this state, when it comes to public policy, the preservation of remote cabins trumps the creation of better moose habitat.

All of which has resulted in the decline of the quality of the regions moose range, which has resulted in a decline in the number of moose at the same time large salmon runs have improved the quality of the habitat for bears and, in many cases, wolves as well. The ultimate result? Fewer moose and more bears, and a knee-jerk conclusion that it's time to declare war on all predators that eat moose.

Who wants to kill bears?

Scientists John Schoen, Sterling Miller, Jim Faro and David Klein worry about what this means for bears. I would, too, if I saw any sign there were large numbers of Alaskans interested in killing bears, but it seems the biggest problem Fish and Game has faced so far in trying to reduce bear populations is that not enough people want to slay the animals. The agency couldn't even up the kill much by making it legal to kill black bears and sell the hides. There wasn't enough money in it for anyone to get interested. Now the state has made bear snaring legal to try to increase the kill. Who knows what's next.

Maybe spring aerial bears hunts when grizzlies, at least, are vulnerable as they emerge from dens above treeline? Big bucks spent on aerial grizzly hunts could probably result in the death of quite a few bears. Or the state could avoid the cost of such hunts by commercializing them. There are no doubt quote-unquote "hunters'' out there who would be willing to pay big bucks for the opportunity to pop a grizzly quote-unquote "trophy'' from an airplane. Granted, the federal Airborne Hunting Act could create a problem, but the state could probably get around this by somehow incorporating guides and their clients in some sort of state wildlife management "experiment,'' as the state now likes to call a lot of its manipulation of predator numbers.

The only problem with that is that "experiments'' are things that scientists are supposed to monitor for results, and in that regard Schoen, Miller, Faro and Klein have an issue. The state really shouldn't be running a huge, predator-control "experiment'' without tracking the results, because without data nothing is really learned other than that humans can kill a lot of bears and wolves if they try.

We already know that. The federal government, aided by weak salmon runs, knocked wolf and bear numbers down to historic lows in Alaska in the 1950s and 1960s.

It took the grizzlies, in particular, decades to recover. But recover they did. Now we are where we are today in the land of the bears with the leadership of Fish and Game dreaming of the land of the moose. The land of the moose, unfortunately, doesn't exist anymore. It's largely all grown up and moved away to be replaced by a land more suitable to bears. We're killing a lot of bears in that land. Schoen, Miller, Faro and Klein document that well in their study. Whether we're killing too many bears remains open to debate. Their study provides no real evidence of significant declines in bear numbers, although the historical precedents are obvious.

Humans have shown they can obliterate grizzly bears. All that is left of them in California is an image on the state flag. Alaskans should hope to do better in the management of their wildlife. But that's somewhat irrelevant to the question of predator control in the state today.

The question here and now is far simpler: How much money do Alaskans want to spend killing bears and wolves in places where the only tangible result is more dead bears and wolves? Remember that old observation on mental illness? "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.''

Who is to blame?

There are a few places in this state where predator control has and can work. But in many places it appears to be little more than a Band-Aid solution to other problems. And for this, sad to say, the Schoens, Millers and Faros of the world -- former state wildlife biologists all -- share some of the blame.

Their unwillingness, and the unwillingness of others like them in the state agency, to back predator control in places where it was warranted decades ago played some role in getting us to where we are today. They helped to keep the political pendulum stuck so far to one side that when it finally broke loose it swung way to the other side.

Let's not forget who cut the pendulum loose, either. It was Alaska's rogue Gov. Sarah Palin, whose parent and one of their buddies knew just enough about predator-prey management to understand that predator control works. Why do you think the Midwest is overrun with whitetail deer? There are no predators other than man to eat them in most places. Palin's families’ buddy -- Corey Rossi -- knows this. and Rossi is now the director of Fish and Game's Division of Wildlife Conservation.

Under his leadership, it's sort of become the Division of Wildlife Conservation for All Species but Bears and Wolves. The state has gone from wanting the ultimate protection for every bear and wolf to wanting every possible bear and wolf dead. The only saving grace, at least for the bears and wolves, is that state bureaucrats aren't nearly as good at the business of killing as were their federal predecessors.

Back when the late and now-revered Gov. Jay Hammond was killing wolves for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the state was full of men who knew how to get the job done.
Craig Medred's views are his own. Contact him at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.



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