Bears May be Next in Predator Control

MORE MOOSE: Game Board approves policy for bruin manipulation

Tim Mowry / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / March 10, 2004

FAIRBANKS -- 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 options such as trapping, sterilization, baiting and 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 to boost moose numbers and is on the verge of aiming at bears after recent studies demonstrated that bears play an important predatory role.

The board, appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature, sets and oversees Alaska wildlife management. It has been meeting for almost two weeks and is scheduled to conclude its business today.

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 because of predation by wolves and bears.

Dozens of people told the board they wanted predator control in the areas they live, and the board was receptive.

"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 board hasn't selected any specific areas, 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 said. "I would not expect the issue of bears to just happen. It's not going to happen without public debate."

The state's current and past wolf-control activities have brought uproar as well as calls for national tourism boycotts.

"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, the board could approve relocation, sterilization, use of communications equipment between trappers or hunters, sale of hides and skulls as incentive, trapping, using bear parts for hand-crafted items, baiting, changing the definition of a legal bear, same-day airborne hunting, land-and-shoot hunting and diversionary feeding.

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 game 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. They are the hardest big game species to count, Titus told the board. And they reproduce slowly.

Board member Pete Buist said 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, which opposes bear control.

"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 study is needed before any kind of bear control is used, 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.

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