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.
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.
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.
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.
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.