The Alaska Department of Fish and Game shot 64 black and brown bears from helicopters in the Western Interior in May. That brings the total number of bears shot during a two-year effort to 153. The Board of Game approved the program following requests from Kuskokwim River-area hunters, who were concerned about a declining moose population.
The two-year program is the first of its kind implemented by the state to eliminate bears. A similar program to control the wolf population has been in place in the same game management unit since 2004.
Fish and Game Spokeswoman Cathie Harms admits the program is controversial.
“I think the most common perception is that the first management program to be considered in Alaska is predator control and the opposite of that is true,” says Harms.
Moose hunting in unit 19A has been closed since 2005 because of a declining population. Harms says the state examined other management options that might help increase the moose numbers before the Board of Game approved extermination.
“In this case, hunting is so restricted that restricting the harvest further isn’t going to change the population,” she says. “Getting rid of regulations on trapping wasn’t going to stop the problem because not enough animals were being trapped. Live capturing and moving the bears was considered, but we have yet to find a place in Alaska where people living there don’t object.”
After 89 bears were shot as part of the effort last year, long-time biologist Vic Van Ballenburg called the program ‘extreme.’ Van Ballenburg said the state’s data regarding the effects of predators on moose weren’t sufficient enough to justify shooting bears from helicopters.
“I think by a combination of trying to ensure that the data to initially justify and implement the program s are better collected and to ensure that we’ve got good monitoring and evaluation procedures in place, that’s what I and many other have been asking for for many years,” said Van Ballenburg.
But Cathie Harms says surveys this spring turned up positive data on moose calves in the Western Interior following the first year of the program.
“It looks like calf survival within the bear control management area is significantly higher than in other areas,” Harms says. “For the moose calves it could be almost double the survival rate of moose calves that leave the area or are outside the area anyway, so it looks to be positive in terms of increasing survival of moose so that the numbers actually change.”
Harms also says removing the top predators has minimal long-term effect on the sustainability of both black and brown bear populations in the Interior.
“No predator control program has effects that last forever,” she says. “They are all somewhat temporary based on what weather, habitat quality, disease and other effects have on the prey population. So we can elevate numbers of moose for a relatively temporary time, but eventually they will go back down to a low density.”
After the bears were shot, they were skinned and processed. Nearly three tons of meat was distributed to residents among 10 western Interior villages along the Kuskokwim River including Kalskag, Aniak, McGrath and Sleetmute. Hides of smaller bears were distributed among village residents. Those from larger bears will be sold at auction.
The state hasn’t released information about its wolf control program in the region. Harms says information about the number of wolves shot in Unit 19A could be available within the month.