The killing land



An Alaska wolf manages a caribou/Ken Conger, NPS

Predator control in Alaska is once again in the news with the Washington Post charging the Trump administration might open national preserves to hunting “techniques many people consider extreme (such as) baiting the animals with greasy doughnuts.” 

The story is a perfect illustration of the fun-house mirror through which the national press views many Alaska stories, and the difference between hunting in Alaska and hunting in the rest of the nation.

For one thing, there isn’t a doughnut shop within 250 miles of the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve or the Noatak National Preserve or many other federal preserves.

The doughnut accusation is silliness. In most of the federal areas now closed to hunting bears over bait, said state wildlife biologist Tony Kavalok,  people “wouldn’t have access to  that product.”

Besides, he added, “most people use dog food,” where they can afford it, or various kinds of once human food – the bones of other wildlife, spoiled salmon, moldy bread products or the like – being thrown away by humans.

If people are hunting bears at all.

There isn’t a lot of bear hunting going on in federal preserves these days. The latest state wildlife report on black bear harvests in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Preserve and a huge area surrounding it in Eastern Alaska puts the annual kill at 36 to 43 bears. 

“Most bears are taken by local residents in the spring and are an important meat source,” the report adds. Wrangell-St. Elias Park and Preserve is the largest park in the world, and one of the handful of road accessible national parklands in Alaska. Most of the bears are killed near the roads on two sides of the park, and many of the few bears killed are shot over bait.

Image versus substance

As with so many of the few Alaska issues that make the national stage, the controversy rests more in image than substance. The image here is of  cruelty and nature tampering. The reality is that the state, as of this point, has never sought to extend its most onerous predator killing efforts into national preserves and refuges.

There is little doubt some of the killing techniques the federal government outlawed in park preserves would be considered extreme by many, if not most, Americans. These include killing bear sows along with their cubs, and killing wolf pups in dens.

These are activities once actively practiced by Alaska Native people’s to try to protect populations of moose, caribou and Dall sheep, but now frowned upon by many from the European culture that long ago imposed its rules on hunting in the north.

“The essential conflict (now) is that Alaska encourages lethal removal of predators in order to increase the supply of game animals while the federal agencies are charged with sustaining all native wildlife – including predators,” argues the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. PEER wants the existing restrictions to remain.

“Team Trump says they do not want to give away federal lands but are apparently open to having them mismanaged,” PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch in a statement.

But the issue really isn’t about mismanagement. It is about killing puppies and cubs, and killing in methods that some argue are inhumane. Though the young are the prime target of wild predators, human conservation efforts have long been directed toward protecting the young.

What came to separate the civilized from the wild was that the former killed the strong and the fit in the prime of life, and the latter took advantage of the young and the weak.

Thus Dan Ashe, the director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service under former President Barack Obama, told BuzzFeed News that a potential roll back of federal parkland rules is “abhorrent.”

“”It’s not illegal; it’s not unethical — it’s just unusual,” he said, and it would undermine the “tradition of hunting and the principles of fair chase that underlie the term ‘sportsman’.”

And therein rests another image issue. Sportsmanship is valued among hunters Outside, as Alaskans refer to the other 49 states. In Alaska, it is often viewed as hunting more for trophies than for meat.

Not so fair chase

The term “sportsman” is an almost dirty word in the 49th state. It was sent to its deathbed by the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980.

The federal legislation created 104 million acres of new national parks, refuges and other protected areas in 49th state. About 55 million acres were parklands of which 20 million acres were in preserves unique to Alaska. Preserves were created instead of parks to maintain hunting opportunities in a land where many still hunt for meat for the table.

Along those lines, ANILCA also created a new and special category of hunters and fishermen – rural subsistence users

Rural subsistence hunters, who can basically be described as meat hunters, were granted a resource-harvest priority over urban Alaska hunters and non-resident who came north to hunt.

Given that the law didn’t define rural and that federal officials with help from the courts came to define rural loosely, the priority quickly applied to tens of thousands of people hunting in 70 or 80 percent of the state. A rural-urban battle quickly erupted as urban and rural Alaskans fought over hunting opportunities.

One of the results was a state subsistence law that made all Alaska residents into subsistence hunters with hunting preferences between those urban and rural to be decided on such issues as the length of their Alaska hunting histories, their dependence on wildlife for food, and their access to alternative food sources.

Since passage of that law, the only “sportsmen” left hunting in Alaska are from Outside. Nearly all of them head to Alaska, often on hunt-of-a-lifetime trips, to kill trophy sheep, moose or caribou. Often they donate the meat of  their kills to Alaskans, given that its much cheaper to buy quality beef than fly to Alaska, kill a big game animal, and then air freight the meat from a rural area to Anchorage and on to the Lower 48.

Despite the fact trophy hunters often give their meat to Alaskans, the non-residents are generally unliked by all Alaskans except the Alaskans who make money by selling them gear, renting them rooms, providing them transportation or guiding them on hunts which by state law require non-residents obtain a guide.

And for all but the Outside hunters, ANILCA pretty much severed the link between hunting, sportsmanship and that thing called “fair chase.” Alaska became all about meat hunting, which fair chase largely sought to limit.

The terms arose when the conservation-minded Boone & Crockett Club in the late 1800s, organized to force a ban on deer drives that pushed large numbers of deer into lakes where they could easily be shot or clubbed to death, or have their throats slit.

Efforts to eliminate other “easy” hunting techniques continued for years after with fair chase reaching its peak with the passage of the Airborne Hunting Act in 1971. The act prohibited hunters from flying around, spotting a big-game animal they wanted to kill, and landing nearby to begin a stalk do so. It also banned the use of aircraft to drive game to hunters in wait.

In a state significantly bigger than Texas with a population then smaller than Anaheim, Calif, today, and with small planes almost as common as automobiles given the state’s few roads, the Act was tantamount to banning road hunting in the Lower 48.

A bit of history

Before Alaska became a state, the federal government managed wildlife largely to feed the residents of the Alaska Territory.

Predator control was widespread and aggressive.

“Intensive wolf control by the FWS (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) in Game Management Unit 13, initiated in 1948, had reduced the wolf population to an estimated 13 by 1953. An increase in the Nelchina caribou herd from 4,000 in 1948 to 40,000 in 1955 followed,” a panel of the National Academies of Science noted in an exhaustive review of Alaska predator control in 1997. 

The federal program piggybacked on the beliefs of indigenous Alaskans.

“As recorded in their stories, the overriding objective of wildlife management of those people was to reduce predator populations to allow for growth or maintenance of strong prey populations,” the Academies report noted. “The advice that was transmitted from generation to generation about wolves, bears, eagles, and sea otters in the stories of many tribal groups was that ‘we always need to keep them down,’ and that ‘it’s important to stay ahead of them.’

“Bears and eagles were taken at every opportunity; the level of harvest would be described today as ‘generous.’ Wolf populations were addressed in a different manner. The stories of the tribes, clans, and bands tell that they knew the location of almost all the wolf dens in their traditional hunting areas. People regularly culled wolf cubs at their dens to reduce wolf numbers; this was known as denning. The quantitative effects of those control efforts on predator populations are impossible to assess, but it is conventional to assert that reductions in average predator populations were substantial.”

Almost all of this came to an end after Statehood. Alaska immediately stopped poisoning, the deadliest and most efficient means of killing predators, and limited the hunting of bears in an effort to create a large and healthy population valuable as a “trophy” species.

After Statehood, the Academies’ report notes, the “administration of Alaskan fish and wildlife resources was transferred to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) in 1960. The department was staffed by young, university-trained biologists who were aware of the changing attitudes toward wildlife management in North America.”

Those young, university trained biologists came of age in a time when L. David Mech, the future dean of wolf researchers, was starting to write about “the balance of nature,” and a lot of ecologists had come to believe most wild predation – unlike human predation – was merely “compensatory,” ie. wolves, foxes, bears and the like were only cropping off animals destined to die anyway.

From the latter sprung the euthanasia view of the wild world where, as People for the Ethic Treatment of Animals (PETA) puts it to this day, “natural predators help keep prey species strong by killing the only ones they can catch—the sick and weak.”

In reality, predators kill both healthy and unhealthy prey. Usually, the young are first on that list. Often the sick and weak predominate. Other times it is the simply the unlucky – caribou or Dall sheep battling deep, crusted snow that makes them easy targets for wolves; or the moose that isn’t paying enough attention and lets a big grizzly get too close.


As nature has its cycles, so, too, humans. The balance of nature eventually cycled around into a lot of new research that underlined the fact nature isn’t balanced at all. It is a seesaw, and in Alaska that seesaw sometimes has a nasty habitat of getting stuck at the low end.

Enter the “predator pit” and “intensive management.”

“High predation rates by wolves can severely depress prey populations and then hold them at a very low density for many years. This is often referred to as a predator pit,” Alaska biologist Wayne Regelin observed in a 2005 study co-authored by a variety of others. “Several moose populations in Interior Alaska are in predator pits. In some of these areas, high densities of black and brown bears complicate the situation. Bears generally prey on moose calves for only a few weeks after they are born, but in some areas they kill up to 65 percent of the calves produced. Moose populations faced with high levels of predation by both wolves and bears will not recover without special management actions to reduce the predation rate.”

State wildlife biologist would later document cases in which bears killed even more than 65 percent of calves. Studies in the Susitna River valley in the early 2000s showed more than 80 percent of calves born in the spring were killed by bears by the end of summer. 

The State of Alaska’s answer to such studies was “intensive management,” which went way beyond prior practices of limited wolf-control and liberalized bear hunting to try to free prey from predator pits.

Intensive management was something of a return to the Alaska wildlife management before pre-European contact when various Alaska Native groups tried to minimize competition for prey by killing wild predators in the best ways they could.

“The Alaska Legislature recognized the importance of wild game meat to Alaskans when it passed the Intensive Management Law in 1994,” according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “This law requires the Alaska Board of Game to identify moose, caribou, and deer populations that are especially important food sources for Alaskans, and to insure that these populations remain large enough to allow for adequate and sustained harvest.

“If the selected moose, caribou, or deer populations drop below what the Board of Game determines is needed for continued harvests by people, the Board directs the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to undertake intensive management of that population.”

Intensive management led to a host of regulations that could be used to make it easier to reduce predator populations: aerial hunts, baiting of grizzly bears as well as blacks, killings of bear sows and cubs, and the killing of wolf pups at dens. Some federal land managers found the rules distasteful. Others were simply uncomfortable with the idea that the state rules might be used to allow for highly manipulated wildlife populations in federally designated natural areas.

Animal-rights groups, which see little distinction between people and other animals, were offended. And there were others, like Ashe, who thought it simply unfair and thus unsporting to shoot wolves from aircraft or bears over bait, although there are places in Alaska where it is very hard to kill bears without hunting them over bait.

Rogue state

Fearing the state of Alaska might, at some point, try to extend the most onerous of these intensive management efforts into national preserves managed by the Park Service and expand predator-control style techniques in wildlife refuges, the Obama administration moved to ban hunting and trapping methods it thought offensive.

The state of Alaska saw the action as just more “federal over-reach.” Fish and wildlife management is generally considered a right reserved to the states, but federal officials are deeply involved in Alaska because of the subsistence mandate in ANILCA, and because highly migratory species like caribou and salmon pay no attention to boundaries between state or private lands, and federal parks or refuges.

The state in January sued Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, Ashe, and acting Parks director Michael Reynolds in an attempt to overturn the predator hunting restrictions.  Not long after, all three officials were gone with the departure of the Obama administration, and new President Donald Trump was looking for replacements.

In February, he named Montanan Ryan Zinke as Interior Secretary. Zinke made his first ever visit to Alaska in May. He promptly called for re-examination of Obama administration policies that had stymied nearly all new oil development in Arctic Alaska. 

The restrictions were highly popular Outside, but less so in Alaska.

Interior has since ordered a review of predator hunting restrictions that are widely popular Outside, but less so in the 49th state.

Bearing baiting, which remains legal in nine states, has been on the hit list of animal rights groups for years. Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., tried to get Congress to impose a national ban in 2003, but failed. 

The Humane Society of the United States continues to attack the hunting technique “as unsporting and inhumane.” And baiting bears to provide the opportunity to shoot the biggest, meatiest bears pales next to trapping bears or killing their cubs, or killing cute, little wolf pups.

In the public-relations battles of the U.S. today, it is a lot easier to be on the side of saving pups and cubs than to be on the side of trying to explain that they grow up to become natural-born killers that devour large number of Dall sheep lambs, and moose and caribou calves.

Despite this, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior Virgina Johnson wrote a July 14 memo to the Park Service announcing she had “concluded that it would be prudent to reassess the need for the (Obama) rule and give further consideration to certain elements. I am therefore directing the National Park Service to reconsider the rule.”

Park Service Alaska spokesman John Quinley on Friday said the agency is now engaged in following the directions in that memo. He had no timeline on when a decision might be made.




4 replies »

  1. Yes, donuts and dogfood. Netflix series, Alaskan State Troopers showed video and donuts were obvious. The moment hunting meets social media snowflakes reason goes out the door.

  2. Well written article craig. Nice to read about some history i did not know about. It is my belief that is why Alaska dose not have a “sport hunting ” license, unlike most other states. For the most part Alaskans are not “sport hunters” they are “consumptive users”.

    The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation is another document that has been cited and rewritten by all sorts of wildlife groups. The original one was produced by Boone & Crockett. A group of well to due european men, that wanted to pound their chests and record who killed the largest animal, while smoking cigars and sipping Brandies. The B&C model has seven guiding principles. which at least a couple of them can not apply to Alaska. Many other wildlife groups have adopted or have amended The B&C model to fit their organization’s agenda. The thing to note is, The NAMC are not legal regulations but, “by laws” for organizations and even B&C has amended their own NAMC to better fit their clubs membership.

    I do like the new Trump administration’s proactiveness in reducing federal over reach on state management.

  3. RESIST. Maybe a democratic form of goverment really works and Alaskans who choose to gather a wild food source can beat back 8 years of Department of the Interior policy to reduce their opportunity to eat moose and caribou. Praise be to the Trump Administration, if Hillary would have won Alaskans who prefer eating free ranging wild game would be stuck with feedlot beef and pork.

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