Game Board Finishes 14 Days of Meetings

Tim Mowry / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / March 11, 2004

Like a wolf pack fresh off a moose kill, the Alaska Board of Game pushed back from the table on Wednesday after digesting two weeks' worth of proposals to change hunting and trapping regulations around the state, many of them dealing with predator control.

The game board completed a 14-day meeting in Fairbanks on Wednesday and members seemed satiated after adopting two new aerial wolf-control programs and creating a bear management policy that directs the state to treat grizzly bears as predators in specific areas where bears are preying on moose.

"We're trying to undo eight years of inaction that resulted in the curtailment of subsistence activities in rural Alaska," said Fairbanks board member Pete Buist, referring to the fact that former Gov. Tony Knowles did not initiate any wolf-control programs during his two terms as governor. "We certainly haven't solved the problem, but we've taken some steps to address the problem."

Specifically, the board adopted aerial wolf-control programs for both Game Management Units 19A in the central Kuskokwim region and 16B in western Cook Inlet.

Scheduled to begin this fall, the two programs will be modeled after aerial wolf hunts taking place in Game Management Unit 19D east near McGrath and part of GMU 13 in the Nelchina Basin. Permits will be issued to qualified pilot-gunner teams for aerial shooting or land-and-shoot efforts.

The game board also adopted a statewide brown bear management policy that allows the board to direct the Department of Fish and Game to treat grizzly bears as predators in areas where it's been documented they are killing moose calves.

Their actions follow a predator-control path the board has been following since it was overhauled by Gov. Frank Murkowski a little over a year ago.

The state now has seven wolf-control programs on the books. While only two--the McGrath and Nelchina Basin aerial hunts--have been initiated, that will change this fall when the state begins issuing permits for two other aerial hunts in areas where state wildlife biologists have documented dramatic declines in the moose populations as a result of predation.

The game board approved a program to kill 140 to 180 wolves in a 10,000-square-mile area in the central Kuskokwim region and a similar program was adopted for a 10,000-square-mile area in western Cook Inlet to kill as many as 100 wolves.

"A lot of people say we're doing too much too fast, but we're not doing too much too fast when you listen to the advisory committees and the public pleading for us to do something," said board member Sharon McLeod-Everette of Fairbanks.

During 3 1/2 days of public testimony to start the meeting, the board was besieged by pleas from residents throughout the Interior for predator-control programs in their areas.

From the Kuskokwim River to the Brooks Range to the Canadian border, people said a rise in predation on moose and caribou by wolves and bears is threatening their subsistence and Alaska lifestyles.

Given the fact the game board is constitutionally and legislatively mandated to manage Alaska's game resources for a high human harvest, board chairman Mike Fleagle of McGrath said the board has little choice but to enact predator control in many areas of the state.

"When you're managing these ungulate populations for human consumption, you can't stand back and let them manage themselves, which is what has been done for the past eight years," said Fleagle. "Hopefully in the future we'll get to the point where it's considered maintenance instead of wolf control."

The game board also approved a brown bear management plan that gives the board the option of using the same methods to reduce grizzly bears that are being used to kill wolves in areas where severe predation is documented.

Juneau board member Ron Somerville noted that the board voted down proposals on same-day airborne hunting of bears, baiting of brown bears and sale of bear hides, though the potential use of all those methods is included in the bear policy adopted by the board.

Rather, Somerville said the board has been site specific, choosing only intensive management areas that have a documented predator problem.

"What we did is not a wholesale war on predators," Somerville said.

Ben Grussendorf of Sitka, the only holdover from the previous game board appointed by Knowles, was the only board member concerned that the state may be moving too fast with predator control, an opinion he voiced several times during the two-week meeting.

"The data we have is fine but maybe we need a little bit more before we start launching off on some of this stuff," said Grussendorf, a former state legislator.

That's not how McLeod-Everette sees it.

"When you have biologists saying the numbers are down, even though they can't give you specific numbers, and when you have advisory committees saying the numbers are down and when you have anecdotal information saying the numbers are down ... you don't have to count the last moose to know there's trouble," she said.

The board's actions were met with reluctant acceptance by Department of Fish and Game administrators, who now must find the money to carry out the plans prescribed by the game board, as well as bolster the biological justification behind them.

"We certainly have to consider how many resources we can scrape up in a time of declining budgets to put the best science toward these programs," said Kim Titus, deputy director of the state's game division.

Implementing wolf-control programs in certain areas also builds expectations for similar programs in other areas, said Titus.

"Hunting groups in Southeast and northwest Alaska are screaming for more science," he said.

So is Paul Joslin of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, a preservationist group opposed to wolf or bear control in Alaska. The state needs more biology on bears before it starts letting hunters use bait or airplanes to hunt them, he said.

Joslin said the board is "out of control" and renewed his call for a more balanced game board that includes other interests besides trapping and hunting.

"This board is not shy about predator control," Joslin said. "This board is doing all it can to maximize production of moose and caribou for hunters across the state."

That's precisely what the job of the game board is, said Ted Spraker of Kenai. The board's actions were driven by long-term declines in moose populations and the testimony of the people who live in the country, he said.

"Somewhere along the line you have to say this is the best information we have," said Spraker, a retired state wildlife biologist. "You can sit around and wring your hands or you can use the best information available to be proactive."

Fellow board member Somerville agreed.

"It seems like we don't do anything until we get to a crisis," he said. "You wouldn't manage your portfolio that way."

News-Miner outdoors editor Tim Mowry can be reached via e-mail at or at 459-7587.


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