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100 dead bears

An illustration from an 1894 German text depicting an old view of American bears as voracious predators/Wikimedia Commons

How many is too many?

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility  (PEER) have joined the list of environmental groups outraged by the state of Alaska’s execution of just shy of 100 bears and a handful of wolves that once roamed a remote area about the size of Rhode Island.

The group this week dispatched a media release saying it has urged Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland to cut off federal funding to states like Alaska “engaged in excessive predator control.”

Calling the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s aerial predator shoot this spring  “both a biological black eye and a blatant misuse of federal conservation funding,” PEER said Haaland should block the transfer of federal Pittman-Roberston Act funds that annually cover just under 70 percent of the budget for Fish and Game’s Division of Wildlife Conservation. 

PEER last year spearheaded a group of environmental organizations charging Alaska “illegally diverts millions of dollars in federal wildlife conservation aid to support prohibited predator control that dispatches hundreds of wolves and bears each year to increase the number of moose and caribou.”

This is a complaint rich with ironies considering the complicated nature of ecosystem management in Southwest Alaska and the source of the federal funds.

The Pittman-Robertson program is funded by a federal excise tax that adds 11 percent to the wholesale price of long guns and ammunition and 10 percent to the price of handguns.

Despite Alaska’s high rate of gun ownership, the state’s small population ensures firearms sales in the 49th state provide virtually none of the P-R funding.

But because of the formula used for distributing the funds, which is weighted toward a state’s size and number of resident hunters, Alaska annually gets the biggest chunk of the federal money.

Other people’s money

For fiscal year 2022, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Alaska was awarded approximately $2.25 million in P-R funds for hunter education, the same amount as was given the nation’s two smallest states – Rhode Island and Delaware.

Meanwhile, states with large numbers of shooters enrolled in hunter education programs – such as Texas and Michigan, and even California and Washington state – were awarded nearly three times as much for firearm education.

When it came to the big pool of “wildlife funds,” however, Alaska and Texas each collected $44.1 million with other states trailing far behind.

On a percentage basis, Alaska, which is home to about 0.22 percent of the U.S. population, collected more than 4 percent of the total P-R funds distributed to the 50 states.

And if anyone is unhappy about how that money is being spent, it should be shooters, and especially hunters, who live in the 49 states other than Alaska, given that they are pretty much guaranteed to get nothing out of the state’s predator control program in Southwest Alaska.

The reason for this is tied to a federal law that makes the management of hunting different in Alaska than all the other states.

Alaska is governed by a federally mandated “subsistence preference” for fish and wildlife harvests that discriminates between rural Alaska hunters, urban Alaska hunters and non-resident hunters with the latter the first to be denied hunting opportunities when the supply of live wildlife falls short of the demand for dead wildlife.

Most of the hunting in Southwest Alaska is already restricted to rural subsistence hunters, who depend heavily on the meat of caribou and moose to feed their families, and the reason for the so-called “predator control,” id that their demand for meat animals already exceeds the supply even though there are fewer than 10,000 people sharing the Mulchatna caribou range with the Mulchatna caribou.

The local view of the predator kill was pretty well summed up by Gary Nielsen, a resident of Kokhanok, a village of about 160 people on the south shore of Lake Iliamna that can only be reached by small plane or by boat across the 22-mile wide and windswept lake from the community of Iliamna, population 35, where the state maintains a paved, jet-capable airport that is a relic of World War II.

While Alaska’s largest newspaper, which caters to an urban audience in Anchorage, was reporting “wildlife advocates” upset about the “number of brown bears killed…given findings last year by state biologists showing limited food supply and disease play a larger role in overall Mulchatna herd declines than predators,” Nielsen was observing that local residents had a far different view.

“They didn’t shoot enough,” he texted. “Not only not enough but they were too far north.”


A boost for other meat animals

“Nobody is broken up about it around here that I know of,” Nielsen said. “Only sentiment I’ve heard is what I just wrote. In fact we were just talking, not even an hour ago, that with less bears we sure as hell hope our moose come back too.”

The bear slaughter might help some moose avoid death in the fangs and claws of bear, but it was primarily directed at aiding the caribou herd which calves north of the Bristol Bay community of Dillingham, where it also appeared no one was upset about the bear kill.

“A lot of folks here think we have way too many bears,” a Dillingham resident messaged. “(But) this could be a real money maker for the professional bleeding hearts. None of them have to worry about stepping on a brown bear when they open the front door.

“Nor do they have to pay our insane meat prices. No doubt they are hay eaters anyway.”

“Brown bear” is the common Alaska term for what most of the rest of the country knows as a “grizzly bear.” Brown bears regularly roam the streets of Dillingham and present some danger, although it has been years since anyone was attacked in the community proper.

Still, the serious mauling of 40-year-old, Dillingham resident John Casteel while moose hunting along the Nushagak River about 20 miles out of town in September was a reminder of the risk. Casteel was saved by a hunting companion who shot and killed the bear.

Bristol Bay and the Alaska Peninsula are home to about 10,000 of the bears, or around a third of the entire state population, according to Fish and Game, and the predator-control program poses no real danger to the region’s bears at a population level.

Lake Iliamna is nearly surrounded by national parks that provide refuge for bears. The bear-filled, 4-million-acre Lake Clark National Park and Preserve is just to the northeast with the more than 4-million-acre Katmai National Park and Preserve famous for its bear viewing just to the southeast.

Nielsen noted a significant difference in how bears are viewed by people who live with the animals and to some degree compete with them for food, and people who drop into the wilds of the 49th state to ooh and aah at the sight of the bears and take photographs.

The bears are, in this case, believed by some to be the reason that a Mulchatna herd that numbered near 200,000 animals in the late 1990s has not been able to rebound from a population crash that saw its population shrink to an estimated 13,500 by 2019.

The exact cause of that decline is unknown, but it appears linked to overpopulation and the subsequent deterioration of the range, the spread of disease or both. These causes, along with environmental changes, tend to be the big drivers of wildlife population crashes.

Digging out of a predator pit

State wildlife officials say they’d like to reduce the number of predators now killing caribou in order to grow the herds’ population to 30,000 animals and maintain the population at a level between that and 80,000 to provide human hunting opportunities without risking another crash.

The state has prohibited nonresidents from hunting Mulchatna caribou for a decade. They were eliminated in 2013 with the herd down to about 30,000 animals. Alaska hunters the same year saw themselves restricted to killing one caribou a year.

The herd appeared to stabilize at 25,000 to 30,000 animals in the years that followed those restrictions, but a 2019 survey could find only 13,500 of the animals, according to Fish and Game. More hunting restrictions followed, but the herd kept shrinking.

By 2021, the population was under 13,000 and even bull-only subsistence hunts by local hunters were stopped. As a general rule, hunts for male ungulates are generally considered to have little effect on population levels because one bull or buck can breed many cows or does.

And the problem the Mulchatna herd appears to be facing at this time is not with breeding, but with the survival of young. According to state wildlife biologists, about 90 percent of the calves born in the spring are being killed and eaten by predators, most notably bears.

The bears, in another irony, are one of the few species of Southwest Alaska big game that nonresidents are still allowed to hunt, and there are some big-game guides – who make significant money off nonresident bear hunts given a state requirement all nonresident bear hunters must be accompanied by a registered guide – who are unhappy about the removal of 100 of those animals.

When the Mulchatna caribou herd might rebuild to a size that would allow for hunting by the nonresidents, who are basically paying for the scheme to rebuild it, is unknown.

At best, if the predator-control program works and there is no given that it will, it would probably take at least a decade.

Predator control, which was once generally considered ineffective except in those circumstances where all predators were removed as on Arizona’s Kaibab Plateau in the early 1900s, has been found to work in some cases, but far from all.

And there are big questions as to cost-effectiveness given that costs are high and results might be short-term or wiped out by changing weather, predator migrations or other natural conditions.

Rich feeding ground for bears

Specifically as regards the aerial hunt on the main calving grounds of the Mulchatna herd this year, there are surrounding areas that provide reservoirs for bears that might move into the calving area next year.

The Southwest part of the state now has a bear population being fueled by record returns of sockeye salmon. Local residents say they have been seeing an unusual number of sow brown bears with three or even four yearlings cubs, which is unusual.

The norm for bears in the area, as reported by researchers in 2006, was a litter of two cubs per sow with a quarter of those cubs dying before being weaned. 

Better food supplies have, however, been generally linked to higher rates of reproduction and of survival for bears, and the food supply for bears in the Iliamna-Bristol Bay area has never been better than it is now.

More than 50 million sockeye salmon returned to the Bay in 2015 –  56 percent more than the then-longterm average of 32 million – and the annual return hasn’t fallen below 50 million since.

Bears that go into hibernation well-fed in the fall emerge from hibernation in the spring in the best shape to hunt moose or caribou, and they can be highly effective predators.

After cameras were put on brown bears in Alaska’s Nelchina Basin for a study running from 2011-2013,  researchers, reported documenting moose and caribou “kill rates considerably greater than previous estimates.”

From the middle of May to the end of June, “based on the kill rates of calves by bears from the calf risk model…individual kill rates  were extrapolated to be 34.4 calves per bear, including 16.2 moose calves killed per bear, 14.1 caribou calves per bear and 4.1 unidentified calves per ear,” they reported in the peer-reviewed Wildlife Society Bulletin in 2017.

The most efficient moose-hunting bear killed 31 moose calves, but only seven caribou calves. The most efficient caribou-hunting bear killed 30 caribou calves, but only 11 moose calves.

Had the 100 Mulchatna bears been capable of killing 30 calves each plus a few adult caribou, the caribou death-count would pretty much have ended any hopes of any growth in the size of the herd this year.

Whether it will grow in the wake of the predator hunt only time will tell.

Alternatives to death

The state could, of course, have sought alternate ways of reducing predation. The Nelchina study indicated that both moose and caribou calves got a break when bears were busy dining on other food.

The researchers reported that when a bear killed an adult moose, it needed more than 13 hours on average to consume the carcass and stayed near the kill for an average of 27 hours.

The study suggests it might be possible to feed bears to turn their attention away from calves, which appear to be little more than tasty snacks.

On average, a Nelchina bear could kill and consume a caribou calf in only 40 minutes before moving on to look for another tasty target, and it didn’t take the bears, on average, much longer to finish off a moose calf. That time was 60 minutes.

Nature is a messy business, and human efforts to manipulate nature to eliminate the often huge swings between periods of abundance and scarcity are neither neat nor foolproof.

When it comes to deciding what to do in terms of “predator control” to assist embattled prey, there is a lot of grey and no real black and white – short of the kill-them-all approach that has resulted in parts of some Lower 48 states being overrun by white-tailed deer.

“Federal wildlife specialists” are slated to “cull,” ie. kill, 180 of whitetails on New York’s Long Island this year, according to the Associated Press, “to reduce damage to habitats and prevent collisions between deer and motor vehicles.

“Bernd Blossey, a Cornell University professor of natural resources, said regular culling is the only way to reduce Long Island’s deer population short of introducing predators like wolves,” the AP added.

Turing wolves loose on Long Island to reduce the deer population was not considered a viable alternative to shooting deer no matter how much the residents of New York might love wolves and desire to “save” them in faraway Alaska.

All of which is another irony in a pot of ironies that has Haaland, the first Interior Secretary with American Indian ancestry – her mother was a Pueblo from Arizona and her father a Norwegian American from Minnesota – being asked to cut off funding for a predator-control operation intended mainly to benefit people in Southwest Alaska with backgrounds similar to her background.

The irony only gets richer when one recognizes that some of these Alaska Natives are Dena’ina Athabascans directly linked to the Alaska Athabascans who began a migration to the American Southwest about 1,000 years ago, and there became neighbors of the Pueblo, sometimes friendly and sometimes not-so much.

It will be interesting to see how Halaand responds to a request to cut off funding for a program intended to help feed some of the  Athabascans who stayed in the north by killing 100-plus predators.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

17 replies »

  1. I’m not good at math, but 100 out of 10,000 sure seems like 1%. If a single bear kills 34.4 calves per year that 1% cull rate results in 3,440 non-dead calves each and every year. If I’m an animal lover who loves animals and wants more animals to love because I love animals it sure seems like 3,440 lovable animals to love is more than 100 lovable animals to love…like 3,300 more. It almost seems like only taking 100 beautiful innocent never did nothing wrong other than eating 34.4 moose and caribou calves per year isn’t enough and they should take 1,000. I’d be OK with removing the must be guided requirement for a few years, if needed for these life saving measures.

  2. This commentary leaves the mistaken impression that calves not eaten by predators will become adults available for hunters to harvest. When this is true, then predation is said to be “additive” to other sources of mortality. Very commonly, however, this isn’t the case and the predation is “compensatory” to other mortality sources like starvation, disease, accidents, etc. The studies ADFG presented to the BOG last year all indicated that the problem with survival of Mulchatna calves was of the compensatory kind. Most likely caused by deteriorated range conditions leading to undernourished cows and calves that are prone to not survive regardless of how many predators are killed. This program in SW Alaska, therefore, is not following the available best science. The same is true in many other similar IM programs in AK. See, for example our examination of the wolf and bear reduction efforts in GMU 13 which have tried, unsuccessfully to increase moose harvests for over 40 years. This was published last year in the open access peer reviewed journal Diversity (Miller, Person and Bowyer 2022) and will be presented again on July 20th in Anchorage at the International Congress of Mammalogy American Society Mammalogists joint conference…Tech Session 35. If Craig would like to discuss this research, he can contact Sterling who will present the paper. Or get press credentials to hear the talk.

    • Thank you. We can have a lovely discussion about where compensatory predation ends and additive predation begins. I well remember being schooled at university back in the ’70s as to how nearly ALL natural predation – ie. non-human killing – was compensatory.

      We all know now that such is not the case. Even the late Gordon Haber, who thought wolves were smarter than we are and thus could better “manage” wildlife populations – was willing to conede this. All of which puts the issue in the gray zone instead of the black and white zone.

      We’re definitely not talking Newtonian physics. We’re talking about a realm of science with an element of art to it, and the thing about art is that people can look at the same picture and see slightly different things. Personally, I tend to agree with your conclusion that a significant part of the predation out there now is compensatory.

      And if I had to pay the bill for this, I’d be outraged as I think Outside hunters and shooters should be. The idea behind those Pittman-Robertson taxes was that the money collected would fairly benefit all hunters and shooters, not a select few. And short of paying to build a private shooting range at a private shooting club, I don’t think you can get much closer to benefitting a select few than this aerial shoot.

      And I do appreciate your comment here. I thought about going down the additive-compensatory rathole when I wrote the story, but it was already too long. And this whole thing is almost as much about emotion as it is science. If the few locals living out in Southwest Alaska had gotten on their snowmachines and gone off and shot an extra 100 bears this spring, I doubt anyone would even have noticed.

  3. “Alaska is governed by a federally mandated “subsistence preference” for fish and wildlife”.
    This statement is not exactly correct. Congress passed ANILCA, which mandates in times of shortage or restrictions of opportunity, federal qualify Alaskan rural residents would have priority on federal lands. The State of Alaska is mandated to manage it’s wild resources via the Alaska Constitution article 8.
    The other irony that was not mentioned was, the culling of 10 of thousands of coyotes (conducted by state fish and game offices in the west), to protect ranchers (beef farmers) live stock, so their products get to the consumer outlets for purchase (stores).

    • I agree, Frank, but the on-the-ground reality is that the federal tail shakes the state dog, and the defacto result is that we are governed by the federal mandate. This might not exactly what is written into law on paper, but if you know the law very well, you know that what is written on paper sometimes gets interpreted and implemented in ways that don’t exactly look like what’s on paper.

  4. I would think selling special area Spring Brown Bear Hunt Tags for the specific area would not only have thinned the Bears, but also generated income for the State and Bear Guides. The image of shooting bears from a helicopter goes against the grain of both hunters and antihunters. If the optimum number of bears weren’t harvested, THEN the state could have stepped in with helicopters.

    I remember when bears, both Grizzly and Black, killed virtually 90% of the Nelchina moose calves and a substantial number of Caribou calves. A friend of mine was involved with darting the bears and following up the results of a no tag needed year-round season for grizzlies. Its success was likely countered by easy access by atvs and Unit 13 being surrounded by roads.

      • Yes, Craig, when I first came up here over 50 years ago, I met a man who had homesteaded in the late 1940s. He said at first his chickens, pigs, and goats were very attractive to the unafraid bears. He tried to scare them off with close shots to no avail. After he and other homesteaders shot a few bears, they learned to stay away from their area. He said once the bears realized it wasn’t safe, a shot near a bear would make the rare intruder skedaddle.

    • If you were following this area, it has been a 2 bear limit for both resident and non-resident. That didn’t do the job! The area that the removal happen in was very very small in a very short time (2 1/2 weeks). It would have taken 45 hunters to take 90 bears. How would have that looked (Steese Hwy caribou hunt of past)? The BOG did give every opportunity for hunters to get all the bears they could. In fact the department did not start till after the guides were done hunting.

      • Frank: Well, what I can say is that it wouldn’t have looked at all like hte Steese Highway caribou hunt becuase there isn’t a highway within 100 miles. You might have noticed the news didn’t hit the fan on this until the hunt was well over.

        How long do you think an ADF&G airborne hunt over the Steese could go before it made the news? A day? Two days? A few hours? The Fairbanks media ain’t what it once was, but I’d expect they’d have picked up on such a hunt pretty quick.

        And there are more things the state could have done out Mulchatna way. They could have eliminated the limit. Hell, they could have lifted the guide requirement for non-resident hunters and advertised that. You might have been able to flood the area with NRs looking for a cheap grizzly hunt.

      • You missed the point Craig, The point was those bears are there for very short time. They are when the calves are hitting the ground, when the calves are the most vulnerable. So it would take a lot of people(at current bag limits) to have that kind of harvest.
        As far as using P.R. funds. There where no P.R. funds on the removal of those bears and wolves.
        Yes the BOG could have enacted a no limit, but data shows very little participation by hunter and prove ineffective.
        The legislature would have to amend the most be guided statute. Don’t see that happening.

      • Frank: The no PR-fund claim is a total cop out when 70 percent of Wildlife Conservation’s budget is PR funds. The Division is just playing a money-moving game.

        I didn’t miss your point on the rest. I think there’s a good possibility that if you opened it up to NRs you could “flood the zone,” so to speak, with shooters. I think the bigger and better question there would be this: Would they be so disruptive they’d do more to intefere with calving than the bears?

      • How much helicopter and employee time to massacre/ murder those 100 bears = $$$$

        Could the state have auctioned of 1,000$ transportation costs paid hunts for those bears ?

        Could they put bounties on those bears and save$

        Is it ethical to shoot a living wild creature from a helicopter?

        Could the state waive same day airborne laws for that area and saved money?

        Did the state salvage the hides , skulls and meat from those bears ?
        Are the killers liable for wasting?
        Why not ?

        Has the state calculated the potential bear population boom will be by killing mature boars?

        Did they kill boars or sows?

        Did they kill sows with cubs ? Ethics

        Did they offer to waive brown bear baiting restrictions?

        Did they try to auction live captured bears to areas in America or Canada ect that wants more bears ?

        Relocating options to uninhabited islands?

        Thoughts?

      • Craig, I forgot to also to state that no P.R. funds were used for the removal of bears and wolves. The DWC use to funds from the I.M. surcharge that is added to the cost of a hunting license. $10 for resident hunters and $30 for non-residents purchasing a hunting license. I believe the legislature passed this surcharge in 2016.

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