State Wraps up McGrath Bear Relocation Program

28 MOVED: The predator control effort to save moose calves includes wolf hunting

The Associated Press / Anchorage Daily News / May 31, 2004

FAIRBANKS -- State wildlife biologists have called off a bear-relocation program near the Interior village of McGrath, saying they caught enough animals.

Biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game captured 35 bears this year -- more than a third of the animals caught last year, according to department spokeswoman Cathie Harms.

Of the bears caught this year, 28 were moved at least 150 miles, five were given to biologists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks for study purposes and two died during transport or capture, Harms said.

This is the second consecutive year bears have been caught and moved from an area that measures 528 square miles around the Interior village of McGrath.

The relocation effort is part of a controversial predator control program aimed at producing more moose for area residents who rely on game meat. It's timed to coincide with the spring moose calving season.

Studies by Fish and Game have shown that bears, not wolves, kill a majority of the moose calves that die each year.

Last year's bear removal program helped increase the moose calf survival rate by about 20 percent in the area.

Biologists have placed radio collars on 52 newborn moose calves in the past two weeks and will now monitor the calves daily. Two calves have died so far. One was killed by a wolf, and biologists are still trying to figure out how the other one died, though they don't believe it was a result of predation.

"What's going to tell us if there are a lot more bears out there that we missed is survival of calves," Harms told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. "If the calf survival stays up high, that probably means we got most of them and there weren't a lot of bears out there. If the survival of calves goes down that probably means there are a lot of bears we missed."

Seven of the 35 bears were bears moved last year that had returned. Each bear is tagged and tattooed before it is moved and released.

The bear relocation program is part of the state's increased emphasis on predator control since the election of Gov. Frank Murkowski two years ago and the appointment of a new state Board of Game.

Over the winter, the state conducted aerial wolf control programs in two areas, one around McGrath and one in the Nelchina Basin between Fairbanks and Anchorage. Hunters killed 20 wolves in the McGrath area and 127 in the Nelchina Basin before the program was halted on April 30.

The wolf control programs ignited a tourism boycott and protests from animal-rights groups around the nation.

The bear relocation, however, hasn't generated the same kind of furor, although predator control critics are not thrilled about the program.

Paul Joslin with the Alaska Wildlife Alliance and Karen Deatherage with Defenders of Wildlife question whether moving bears is nonlethal. They say many of the displaced bears are killed by other bears.

"This out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach to bear management gives the illusion we're being good to them when in fact we're being pretty harsh to them," Joslin said.

Critics also question why the state is spending money to move bears to protect a moose population that is not in trouble. Population surveys by Fish and Game indicate the moose population in the area is on the rise, Deatherage noted.

It costs about $1,000 to move each bear.

At this point, it's uncertain whether Fish and Game will move bears again next year.

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