Controversial Intensive Management of Alaska’s Bear Population

In 2008, when Sarah Palin was announced as John McCain’s running mate, numerous stories from her past were revealed, many of them involving environmental issues. One of the most memorable was her sponsoring of a program that allowed the hunting of Grey Wolves, an animal that has been on and off the endangered species list for years. The most shocking part of the story is that she not only encouraged the killing of these animals, but declared it legal to shoot them from helicopters. In this process, hunters follow the wolves from the air until they can not run any more and then take them down with shotguns. A similar story has made its way back in to the news, although this time, it concerns Alaska’s bears.

On January 17th, the Alaska Board of Game proposed to open the doors for hunters to shoot bears, including grizzlies, from helicopters. The proposed policies also included measures that would allow for widespread snaring of bears. These new “intensive management” strategies will be voted on in March, but will certainly raise debates between now and then.

These proposed policies have stirred up confusion among not only environmentalists and conservationists, but hunters and politicians as well. Terry Holliday, president of the Alaska chapter of Safari Club International  (a group certainly not opposed to hunting) says that he disagrees with the proposed changes. Holliday told the Bend Bulletin there are better ways to control the bear population and that “It’s not humane. You shoot something, you kill it. If it’s properly done, it’s bang, and it’s over, with the animal not suffering. But when you go out and you start snaring animals and whoever’s doing it, say, the weather’s bad and you can’t get back for several days, here’s a bear sitting there in a snare with a bucket on its foot.”

The potential pain that this new provision could put these animals through is only the tip of the iceberg. There are many unanswered questions still floating around about this proposal, mostly because the true answers are not what people want to hear (or what advocates want to admit). In a list put out by the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, the reasons against the trapping and shooting of bears is clearly outlined by Wade Willis, former Alaska representative for Defenders of Wildlife and former biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. One of the main arguments that Willis makes is that there are not nearly enough regulations being put on this proposed hunting. There is currently no limit to how many bears can be killed, who can trap and kill them, nor has there been any designated area the trappings can take place. Not to mention the danger that helicopters can cause not only to those riding in them in inclimate weather, but also to the environment. The worry is that illegal “cutting in” of forests will take place to accommodate the helicopters and planes to get in to these remote areas where the bears live.

The hunting being proposed is to “manage” the numbers of bears around Alaska that are often considered predatory and dangerous. The issue with this is that one specific type of bear cannot be targeted by snares, or identified properly from the air, and some of Alaska’s bear species are nearing endangerment or already endangered. The Grizzly, which is part of the Brown Bear family, while rebounded in population in the past few years, only has come back in numbers by being placed on the endangered species list. The Endangered Species Act is what saved this animal and if it were not for that, it is quite possible the Grizzly would be nearing extinction today due to illegal poaching. A large amount of funding is provided for the protection of Black Bears, causing them to be one of the most stable bear species. However, if hunting without regulation were to be allowed, it is no telling what may happen to either of these creatures numbers.

The list goes on of why this hunting, at it’s core, is simply not a rational decision for the Alaskan environment. Some of the area the proposed hunting would take place is near a bear sanctuary where people can come to observe the bears and appreciate their beauty. Rod Arno, an advocate for the Alaskan Outdoor Council, responds to this potential sanctuary invasion by saying “Bears are a renewable resource. Humans can’t take more than 5 percent of the bears, so there are always more bears around that you can look at.” Even if this is true, there is nothing in place enforcing “only 5%” being killed which could lead to a serious decline in the species.

So, what is being done to stop this reckless killing? An organization called Grizzly Bay is fighting to defend the Grizzly Bears in Katmai National Park. They provide information of who to contact and tell to stop the killing of these bears (why not give Governor Sean Parnell a call at 907-465-3500 or the Alaska Department of Fish and Game at 907-465-4100). Former Alaska governor Teddy Knowles is also speaking out against these proposed changes and testified before the Alaska Board of Game as to why it is wrong. Numerous other environmental advocates are protesting this hunting and one can assuredly expect to hear more about this in the coming months.

When all is said and done, this hunting simply does not have just cause and has no merit. “Controlling” a species to preserve others never truly works (as seen in Elk and Moose in Alaska’s history) and will most likely be looked back on as a mistake ten years from now. One of our nations greatest conservationists, Theodore Roosevelt, encouraged hunters to enjoy nature, but always touted the “fair chase”, not bloodsport. While I cannot speak on his behalf, I am confident Teddy would not consider helicopters a part of a true sportsman’s fair chase. Roosevelt’s creation of the National Park system was based on the ideas that wildlife is managed as a public trust using scientific principles for the common good. The careless snaring and hunting of bears throws these proven concepts out the window and leads down a dangerous path of destruction.

Photo credit: http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/shoshone/home/?cid=stelprdb5187633

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