Bear Removal Begins Again Near McGrath

MANAGEMENT: Effort is timed to coincide with moose calving season

Mary Pemberton / The Associated Press / Anchorage Daily News / May 16, 2004

For the second year in a row, the state will move bears away from the McGrath area to try to increase the moose population.

Department of Fish and Game biologists this week are organizing the effort, which will relocate mostly black bears and some grizzlies from the area around the Interior village to a game management unit south of Fairbanks.

McGrath, with about 500 residents, is part of a 528-square-mile area where the state is conducting a predator control study in response to complaints from residents that bears and wolves have killed too many moose, cutting into their food supply.

Seven or eight biologists will be involved in the relocation effort, said Fish and Game spokeswoman Cathie Harmes, in Fairbanks. Two or three biologists were in McGrath on Tuesday, but the weather prevented others from arriving. The biologists were to try to get to McGrath again Wednesday, depending on the weather.

The bear relocation, timed to coincide with the spring moose calving season, is expected to continue through the end of the month, Harmes said.

"What we want to do is keep them away from the calves for a few months, and that was very successful" last year, she said.

Last spring, about 90 bears were moved at least 150 miles from the McGrath area. About 20 percent of the bears eventually returned.

When biologists began the relocation last year, they expected to remove between 25 and 40 bears but ended up removing more, Harmes said. The relocation cost about $1,000 per bear.

It is uncertain how many bears will be relocated this year. The bears likely will go to Game Management Unit 20A, south of Fairbanks, because it has more moose, Harmes said.

Over winter, the state conducted an aerial wolf control program whereby wolves were shot from airplanes in the McGrath area to boost moose numbers.

The McGrath program was similar to a land-and-shoot program that operated at the same time in the Nelchina Basin area in Southcentral Alaska.

The programs together resulted in 147 wolves being killed. Both programs, which have been approved for five years, were suspended April 30 and will begin again in fall.

In the McGrath area, the state Game Board expanded the aerial program from about 1,750 square miles to 3,600 square miles when tracks indicated that wolves were going well beyond the boundaries of the experimental study area, Harmes said.

Even though only 20 wolves were killed under the aerial program and another 11 eliminated by trappers, biologists had a fairly good idea of how many wolves were in the McGrath area, she said.

"They got the majority of wolves," Harmes said.

Fish and Game has said that last year's bear removal helped increase the moose calf survival rate by about 20 percent in the McGrath area. Eighty-one black bears and nine grizzlies were relocated.

By the end of April 2003, the survival rate for moose calves was 56 percent, compared with 27 percent in 2002 and 33 percent in 2001, Harmes said.

Biologists through the use of radio collars placed on moose calves will conduct a mortality study this summer. The collars produce two sounds, one that indicates a calf is alive and another that signals the animal might be dead because it has not moved for a while.

In fall, biologists plan to do a moose count in the McGrath area. Wolf population estimates also will be conducted, she said.

The Game Board will be evaluating the program's progress and making revisions over the five-year period, Harmes said.

"It is not carved in granite that control efforts will take place for five years," she said. "It depends on what objectives are met and what we learn."

In the Nelchina Basin area, 127 wolves were killed under the aerial program. The goal was 140 wolves.

"I think it was successful," said Fish and Game spokesman Bruce Bartley. "It did what we expected it to do."

Bear relocation won't be part of the Nelchina Basin program. That's because hunters already are doing the job of bear removal, Bartley said.

In 2001-2002, hunters in the basin's Unit 13 killed 87 black bears and 119 brown bears. That compares with McGrath area hunters in Unit 19 killing fewer bears: 16 black bears and 83 brown bears.

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