The bears of Alaska, it is possible, are being persecuted and killed for problems they did not cause, three former biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game contend in a new paper published in BioOne.
Lead author Sterling Miller led bear research for the state agency before leaving Alaska for Montana to join the National Wildlife Federation as its senior wildlife biologist. Chuck Schwartz studied bears on the Kenai Peninsula before departing Alaska for Montana to join the U.S. Geological Survey’s Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team. John Schoen studied bears in Southeast Alaska before retiring from Fish and Game to become the senior, Alaska scientist for the Audubon Society.
Their newly published study argues that the state’s very own data indicates bears are being over-harvested, making it likley their popuation is depressed. But the scientists stopped short of calling the animals in any way threatened.
“We doubt that the state of Alaska will allow the elimination of bears in any area of the state because this is explicitly precluded by the intensive management statute and the Alaska constitution. Regardless, we suggest it would be productive to adopt a more conservative management approach toward bear management in Alaska, particularly on federal national-interest conservation lands that may provide critical refuge from over exploitation elsewhere.”
The paper continues a long-running debate that goes back decades to that aforementioned intensive management program that became law in 1994. The law requires state wildlife biologists manage for maximum numbers of moose and caribou in areas important for hunting.
Predator control and wild fire were defined as the options for boosting the number of those two popular wildlife species. Fire has been little used, primarily because of concerns over burning human structures or threatening inhabited areas.
Bear and wolf numbers have, however, been reduced in significant areas of the state to help grow moose in particular. Some like it that way.
A good thing?
“Each time I fly south of the Alaska Range across some of the most contiguous state managed lands in Alaska and see populations of moose and caribou thriving, and I read ADF&G (Alaska Department of Fish and Game) reports of high bull/cow ratios and high percentages of calves surviving, or read proposals submitted by ADF&G requesting the board allow any bull permitted hunts, lengthen seasons, and recommend antlerless moose seasons, I take great pride in being one of many who believed, way back when, that Sterling and” some of his associates were just anti-hunters, said Rod Arno, the director of the Alaska Outdoor Council.
“I still have fond memories of getting the news that Sterling (and his wife SuzAnne, formerly a biometrician for the state) were leaving Alaska and moving outside.
“Hard to believe how poor their ‘science’ turned out to be. It’s amazing how hard you can hammer both brown and black bear populations south of the Alaska Range and yet they persist. As do those who are willing to hunt them.”
Sterling does make a slight concession to Arno in his latest paper. Miller concedes to being overly conservative about safe levels for bear harvests in the past.
“Alaska has made little effort to estimate sustainable harvest rates of bear populations,” he writes. “Miller (1990)…estimate(d) a sustainable harvest rate of 5.7 percent for a productive bear population in Southcentral Alaska. This estimate was incorrectly reported by Miller (1990) as applying to a population of bears (of) both sexes.
“The model was actually influenced by adult female mortality. Where bear harvests are highly biased toward males, as is the case in Alaska, productive populations can sustain mortalities greater than the 5.7 percent reported by Miller (1990), at least for some time. In British Columbia, Canada, sustainable mortality rate for independent females was estimated at 9.3 percent and varied based on productivity.”
The views of Miller and Arno illustrate the wide gulf between those who favor their Alaska ecosystems largely regulated by nature and those who think man should take an active role. How much humans should tamper with terrestrial ecosystems has been the subject of endless debate in Alaska for decades now.
There seems less concern about marine ecosystems which have been regulated to spawn huge increases in salmon numbers since the 1970s, and those salmon have some influence on terrestrial ecosystems.
Access to a bounty of salmon is well-known for boosting bear numbers, and research in recent years has linked salmon abundance to increases in wolves as well. Scientists studying wolves in both Denali National Park and Preserve in the Interior and Lake Clark National Park and Preserve along the Gulf Coast have found that wolves that have access to salmon have much better survival odds in the inherently harsh world in which they live.
From 1986 through 1994, biologist Layne Adams reported, the average death rate for Denali wolves saw more than a quarter of them dying every year. Bears generally have it better because they hibernate – a useful adaptation in a land where the winters are cold, dark and long.
Who do you love?
Shifting emotional and financial interests in wolves and bears, and moose and caribou have long seesawed state wildlife management. For years prior to passage of the intensive management law, requests to the state Board of Game to kill wolves and bears to take predatory pressure off moose and caribou populations invariably went nowhere.
Since the mid-1990s, the pendulum has swung heavily the other way.
Miller and his co-authors defined a “liberalized hunt area” covering an estimated 76 percent of the state where bear hunting seasons and regulations have been steadily relaxed over the past 20 years. As a result, they reported, grizzly bear kills increased from about 400 per year in the 1980s to about 900 bears per year in the 2010s.
The harvest in the liberalized hunt area – which Miller, Schwartz and Schoen estimated is home to about 44 percent of the state’s bear population – surpassed the kill in the non-liberalized area in the early 2000s.
The liberalized hunt area is basically all of Alaska 100 miles or so back from the Gulf Coast. Despite the fact that area compromises most of the Alaska land mass, it is home to relatively few bears because of, as Miller writes, “limited or no availability of Pacific salmon, which is an important bear food where available.
“The LHA,” as Miller calls it, “includes most of the area in Alaska where moose are common; during 2015, more than 91 percent of 7,816 moose harvested in Alaska came from the LHA.”
The harvest numbers for both bears – about 900 – and moose – about 8,000 – are illustrative of the low productivity of the ecosystems of the state’s frigid Interior. Alaska is often and wrongly thought to be a land of bounty, but it’s not. Short growing seasons and severe winters make life hard for wildlife in most of the state.
About 90,000 moose are harvested annually in Sweden, a country only about a quarter the size of Alaska but with a climate moderated by the Atlantic Gulf Stream.
A growing human population, a high demand for wild game in a state where the cost of living is high, and low ecological productivity have all combined to put more pressure on Alaska state officials to increase bear kills to reduce predatory competition, Miller wrote.
He also noted a lack of sound scientific research to show that suppressing bear numbers really helps increase moose numbers. The popular belief that is the case has, however, kept hunters in support of high bear harvests except in coastal areas where the bears are big business.
Hunting guides there have lobbied to keep bear harvests low in order to grow more big, old bears worth tens of thousands dollars to clients interested in the hunt of a lifetime. Coastal Alaska Adventures is charging $55,950 per hunter (minimum three) for a two-week hunt for grizzly and black bears in Southeast Alaska in April. The company reports it’s already filled a 10-day hunt for brown-bear-only in May at a cost of $45,950 a head.
The big bears of the Alaska coast are considered trophies. Their smaller cousins inland are treated more like vermin. Miller, Schwartz and Schoen question whether this is really sound wildlife management.
“The state of Alaska has continued to liberalize brown bear hunting regulations in the LHA since 2000 without accompanying researching or monitoring to evaluate the potential impacts of the resulting increased harvests on affected bear populations,” the biologists wrote.
Cue the debate
Wildlife management is not easy. The extremes are well documented. It is a given that a prey population that outgrows the carrying capacity of its habitat will crash. It is also widely accepted that prey can end up in a “predator pit” where tooth, claws and growling bellies every year lead them to kill so many prey – primarily the young – that prey populations remains chronically low.
“Predator-prey dynamics are complex and variable in different areas and conditions,” Miller and his colleagues wrote, in probably the biggest understatement in the study.
That said, they added that “state management of wildlife in Alaska has become a process whereby population objectives for wild ungulates (primarily moose and caribou) are established based on demand rather than on habitat capacity.”
As scientists, they admit they’d like to see that change.
“…Management actions should be based on objectively collected research or actions should be conducted within a research framework where the effects of the actions can be evaluated,” they write. “This scientific underpinning is inadequate in Alaska areas subject to efforts to reduce brown bear abundance.
“We are concerned with the rapid increase in liberalization of brown bear hunting regulations across much of Alaska without corresponding science to support the changes or provide a framework for adaptive management.”
The essence of their argument is that Alaska is special. It is the last stronghold of the grizzly in the U.S. The lower 48 population, while recovering, numbers only about 1,800 animals – a mere twice the number killed in Alaska every year – and there are only an estimated 26,000 in all of Canada.
Alaska remains home to 25,000 to 39,000. It has the wilderness to support a large population. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) created 104 million acres of federal parks, preserves and wildlife refuges in the state in 1980.
The question facing future generations is whether they’re willing to live with this many bears. California had lots of grizzly once, too, but the only one left today is an image on the California state flag.