Panel to Mull Killing Bears


GAME BOARD: Laws protecting bruins could be eased to aid moose

Joel Gay / Anchorage Daily News / February 10, 2004


Hundreds more wolves would come under fire by aerial sharpshooters if the Alaska Board of Game extends predator control to additional areas of the state at its upcoming meeting in Fairbanks.

But wolves won't be the only predators in the board's sights. The seven-member panel will also consider expanding its predator-control program to include brown bears. If it does, grizzlies could be killed in areas where the human harvest of moose or caribou is considered too low.

And those are just a few of the hot topics at the meeting, which runs Feb. 26-March 10 at Wedgewood Resort. The board also will consider:

* Eliminating a buffer zone that protects two well-known wolf packs from traps and snares near Denali National Park.

* Allowing bait-station hunting of brown bears.

* Permitting hunters to kill black and brown bear sows and cubs.

* Legalizing the sale of bear hides, skulls, claws and other parts.

It's shaping up to be an explosive meeting, said Matt Robus, director of Wildlife Conservation for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

"When it comes to predator control and hunting and trapping issues, people tend to be at one end of the spectrum or the other," he said. "We're going to have our full share of people at both ends."

Predator control -- killing predators to help their prey animals thrive so people can more easily kill and eat them -- has resumed since Gov. Frank Murkowski took office last year.

After he replaced six of the seven Game Board members, the board approved an aerial wolf-kill program near McGrath and another using aircraft land-and-shoot hunting in the Nelchina basin northeast of Anchorage.

In McGrath, none of the 40 targeted wolves have yet been killed. The Nelchina program is aiming to kill about 140 and had taken 39 as of last Tuesday, according to Fish and Game.

In both areas, state biologists claim that the moose population is being held down by wolves and black and brown bears. Critics contend the department's scientific data, such as population counts, are inadequate to support the controversial programs.

The question of how much information is enough is likely to rise again in Fairbanks and could put board members in the position of overruling the state's biologists.

For instance, the board plans to reconsider a wolf-control plan for 16B, a game management area northwest of Anchorage. Last fall, the board postponed action on 16B after Fish and Game officials said they lacked the information to support predator control.

The state's position hasn't changed, said Jeff Hughes, the regional biologist for Fish and Game.

"We are not in a good position biologically to institute a predator control program in 16B at this time," he said last week.

But the board has the final decision and will determine whether to accept that advice or overrule it. Board member Ted Spraker, a retired Fish and Game biologist, said he'll vote to overrule.

"I really think the department has adequate information to make a justified decision in 16B," Spraker said, as well as for new predator control programs in subunits 19A and 19B, the Kuskokwim River area east of Aniak. Anecdotal information shows that the moose population has plummeted and wolves are at least partly to blame, he said.

"How much (information) do you need?" he asked. There are never enough data to satisfy opponents of predator control, Spraker said, so the board may have to make judgment calls.

Also up for approval are aerial wolf kills in subunits 20D and 20E, which stretch from Delta Junction to the Canada border, and in unit 12, which runs from the Wrangell Mountains north to 20E, around Eagle. All told, the programs could target hundreds of wolves.

Opponents fear the board could expand aerial wolf control in all six areas under consideration, regardless of how much or little information supports each decision. They also expect more such proposals in the future, said Karen Deatherage of Defenders of Wildlife. "This was one of our major concerns about having the ban on aerial and same-day wolf killing lifted, that it would become a routine management tool for the department," she said. "A lot of these hunters and trappers now feel like they have an open door."

While attempts to halt the new aerial wolf-kill programs have been unsuccessful in court, Defenders is trying a different tack, Deatherage said. On Tuesday, the group asked the U.S. Interior Department to review whether the state's programs are legal under the federal Airborne Hunting Act.

The act allows for aerial predator-kill programs under certain circumstances, but not to improve sport hunting, Deatherage said.

"We believe clearly the act is being misused," she said.

It could take months for the department to decide the issue. In the meantime, Fairbanks board member Pete Buist said there's no guarantee the panel will approve wolf control in any of the six areas.

"It's also safe to say we will continue to look at those areas where wolves appear to be a limiting factor (on moose) and take action to bring those moose populations back so people can have them for food," he said.

Using predator control methods on bears will be a bigger hurdle for the board to leap, Buist said. Brown and black bears can eat many moose and caribou calves . But bears reproduce more slowly than wolves, introducing a risk that too many bears could be killed, he said.

Even though the board is eager to boost moose and caribou stocks, Buist and Spraker said proposals to allow brown bear baiting or shooting sows and cubs in areas of high predation are likely to fail. Similar proposals were voted down last year, they noted.

But the board will consider a new policy by Fish and Game that outlines how brown bear predator control would be accomplished in the future. Unlike a bill introduced last week by Sen. Ralph Seekins, R-Fairbanks, the new state "conservation and management policy" does not authorize land-and-shoot for grizzlies, but instead calls for traditional hunting methods to be used "wherever possible."

COMMENT PERIOD: Public comment on the 268 proposals, which can be viewed at www.boards.adfg.state.ak.us , are due by 5 p.m. Friday.

Daily News reporter Joel Gay can be reached at jgay@adn.com or at 257-4310.


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