Bear Control Advances


Tim Mowry / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / March 9, 2004


While the Alaska Board of Game did not declare war on bears on Monday, it began mobilizing.

The state took its first step toward manipulating brown bear populations to produce more moose when the game board unanimously adopted a statewide policy that will permit everything from trapping to sterilization to baiting to land-and-shoot hunting for black and grizzly bears in areas deemed necessary by the board.

"It's not a war on bears," Fairbanks board member Sharon McLeod-Everette said of the policy. "It gives us a tool to handle bear predation the same way we're handling wolf predation."

The state recently initiated aerial wolf hunts in McGrath and the Nelchina Basin as part of wolf-control programs to boost dwindling moose herds and is on the verge of taking aim at bears after recent studies have demonstrated that bears play an important predatory role in Alaska.
The game board is in the home stretch of a marathon meeting in Fairbanks that began almost two weeks ago and is scheduled to conclude Wednesday.

The board is considering changes to hunting and trapping regulations around the state and many of the changes center on declining moose and caribou populations due to increased predation by wolves and bears.

Dozens of people testified before the board at the start of the meeting, pleading for predator control in the areas they live and their pleas did not fall on deaf ears with a board that has established itself as a hunter- and trapper-friendly board.

"We have to take action against predators to keep from driving our prey populations into a pit they can't climb out of," board member Cliff Judkins of Wasilla said.

How soon the state will begin any type of bear-control program remains to be seen, however. The game board hasn't selected any specific areas and must develop an agenda for doing so, said Kim Titus, deputy director for the state's game division.

"It took a number of years to get where we are with wolves," Titus noted. "I would not expect the issue of bears to just happen. It's not going to happen without public debate."

Given the uproar over the state's current and past wolf-control activities, which have spurred national tourism boycotts by one of the country's largest animal-rights groups, there's no doubt the possibility of bear control will stir public debate.

"Nowhere in the U.S. is there any program associated with control of brown or grizzly bears," Titus said. "It's a new arena."

According to the policy adopted unanimously by the seven-member board on Monday, bear-control programs will be considered only in areas that are designated for intensive management, a state law that mandates game populations in those areas to be managed for human consumption.

"This is to cure a problem," said McLeod-Everette, one of the state's first female hunting guides. "I think over time people will understand this isn't meant to wipe out everything and be used everywhere."

While poison and shooting bears from the air are prohibited in the policy, methods and means the game board may authorize to reduce bears include relocation, sterilization, use of communications equipment between trappers or hunters, sale of hides and skulls as incentive, trapping, using bears to make and sell hand-crafted items, baiting, changing the definition of a legal bear, same-day airborne hunting, land-and-shoot hunting and diversionary feeding.

"Those are options," Fairbanks board member Pete Buist stressed. "We're not going to exercise those options until we're convinced they're absolutely needed."

The board made its decision after Titus recommended a "surgical approach" to bear predation in Alaska. He said control programs should be used only after all hunting options to increase harvest have failed.

While the department has a reliable estimate of how many wolves are in the state, biologists don't know how many bears there are, he said.

"Estimating bear numbers is more difficult than counting any other big game species in the state," Titus told the board.

That, coupled with the slow reproductive rate of bears, requires caution in initiating any kind of bear-control programs.

"We simply haven't done that much with bears in several years," Titus said.

Ron Somerville of Juneau called the bear policy "very precise." It contains several "hoops" both the game board and Department of Fish and Game must jump through before taking any action.

Buist also felt the board was taking a "measured" approach. He pointed out that after the board adopted the policy, it voted down proposals that would have made baiting grizzly bears, shooting yearling cubs with their sows and selling bear hides legal in some areas.

"We're not charging into it," Buist said.

That's not the opinion of Paul Joslin, wildlife director for the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, a preservationist group strongly opposed to bear control. He called the bear policy "major manipulation" of a wildlife species to satisfy humans.

"The whole direction of this board is to manipulate prey populations for the sole benefit of hunters at the expense of the whole wildlife species," Joslin said. "They're not very appreciative of the role predators play in the environment."

More studies need to be done before any kind of bear control begins, he said.

"Science with bears isn't there," said Joslin, a wildlife biologist. "We don't have a handle on the numbers. Bears are such slow breeders that if you make a mistake, it may take years to recover."

State bear biologist Harry Reynolds called the policy "a starting point" in bear management and emphasized that caution must be used when dealing with bears.

"We don't want to reduce bear populations to extremely low levels where it would be difficult for them to recover," he said.

At the same time, Reynolds said he has faith in Alaska's game managers to make sure that doesn't happen.

"It's a first step," he said. "Like any other first steps, there's room for improvement. When the public becomes more aware of it, I'm sure they'll get more suggestions how to improve it."

Staff writer Tim Mowry can be reached at 459-7587 or tmowry@newsminer.com.


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