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The killing season

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The remains of a moose calf that didn’t survive/Craig Medred photo

Two bears – one grizzly, one black – were shot dead in an Anchorage suburb over the weekend, bringing to seven the number of bears killed so far this year in defense of life  and property (DLP) on the outskirts of Alaska’s largest city.

 

“And then there was the one electrocuted,” said Ken Marsh, spokesman for the Division of Wildlife Conservation in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Plus the grizzly bear struck by a car and so badly injured the Anchorage Police Department had to put it down.

All told that’s nine dead  in about a month. It’s easy to think of this as the sad fate of wildlife living on the edge of civilization in the wildest state in the country, but that would ignore the reality of nature.

While people were killing nine bears around the edges of Anchorage, the bears were killing dozens of moose calves. No one has any idea of exactly how many, but it is safe to figure  many.

A 2012 study on the Kenai Peninsula found bears killed about half of the moose calves born in the study area there, and the overall death rate (not counting the seven moose calves abandoned by the mothers after being radio-collared) was over 70 percent.

Many ways to die

Along with the bear deaths, there were three drownings (cows regularly seem to lead their calves into rivers the calves aren’t yet strong enough to swim), three killed by unknown predators (wolves, coyotes, wolverines, stray dogs), one confirmed killed by a wolf or coyote, and four dead from unknown causes, possibly including hypothermia.

The death rate was high, but not unusually so. Across Alaska, it is thought that about half of all moose calves die within the first six weeks of life every year, and in some cases, there have been a few areas of state where almost no calves survive.

A long-running study in the Susitna Valley found that in 2010, only six of the 84 calves in the study there survived from birth until fall. The survival rate rose to 50 percent after bear-hunting rules in the area were liberalized and more bears were killed.

A lot of killing goes on in Alaska in the summer during that brief period of time when the environment is productive, and who or what survives depends on all sorts of factors, including luck.

Stumbling on a winter-weakened moose or a cow with calves in May might mean the difference between life and death for a grizzly bear that emerges from the den in poor shape, and an enticing human chicken coop might mean the opposite.

The dead Eagle River-area grizzly was shot raiding such a coop, Marsh said. He did not know if the coop was surrounded by an electric fence, a fairly cheap piece of technology which has proven very effective at encouraging bears to stick to wild food instead of man-produced food.

“We’ve got a web page devoted to fences,” Marsh said.

The state agency has been trying to limit bear kills in the Anchorage area at the same time it has been promoting bear kills in parts of rural Alaska to try to help beleaguered moose populations.

It’s complicated

One of the realities of Alaska is that it’s a good place to be a bear. They are perfectly adapted to life in the north.They hibernate through the long, cold, dark winter and emerge to take advantage of the short summers.

And there might be no better time to be a bear in Alaska than now.  Salmon returns that numbered in the tens of millions in the 1970s now number in the hundreds of millions. The abundance of salmon means a lot of bears go to bed fat and happy in the fall.

The same situation is not so good for moose when the bears emerge from their dens in the spring still fat but hungry. It is an especially not so good for moose if they’ve endured a long, hard, deep-snow winter that has left them weak and vulnerable.

But this is the natural world. This is nature.

No matter how much urban American might want to see it as the friendly wonderland displayed in Disney movies where the animated predators talk to the animated prey, nature is a war zone with killing its cornerstone.

And it’s only just begun in the 49th state.

The slaughter

The death of summer on the lands of Alaska pales compared to the death at sea along the coast and in the state’s many creeks and rivers.

To date, about 1.5 million salmon have been killed by commercial fishermen alone. The deaths are a drop in the bucket.

Before the year is over, commercial fishermen are expected to kill more than 200 million more salmon.  Alaska anglers, personal-use dipnetters and subsistence fishermen might club to death another 10 million or so. The bears, and in some cases the wolves, will kill millions more.

Nobody knows how many.

The death rate in natural ecosystems in Alaska is so high it is hard even for trained naturalists to get their hands around it. The most common terrestrial species of animal in Alaska is the vole, and there are so many no one has ever even hazarded a guess as to how many.

“Adults weigh less than four ounces – yet they play a huge role in the food chain. They are the primary food source for many small mammals and birds in Alaska, including weasels, martens, foxes, coyotes, owls, hawks and jaegers,” Elizabeth Manning wrote in the state’s Fish and Wildife News in 2008. “Even bears and wolves will eat voles, with black bears sometimes turning over logs and breaking into brush to find them.”

Most of the voles are lucky if they survive a year, but their prodigious birth-rate keeps the species going strong.

“Millions upon millions of voles live throughout Alaska but are rarely seen,” Manning wrote. “They are active and awake all winter but live mostly under the snow, moving between their nests and foraging areas via extensive tunnel networks.”

If they emerge on top of the snow, they automatically have a target on their back. But even under the snow they are pursued by predators all winter long. But now they are even more of a target.

A nest with four-to-nine, young red-backed voles is for a weasel, fox or even coyote this time of year a jackpot in the natural world where the rules for wild predators are simple: kill or die, and sometimes kill or be killed.

Be thankful you were born human

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