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Does science back up Alaska's policy of killing grizzly bears?

Rick Sinnott

Four years ago the Alaska Legislature offered Gov. Sarah Palin and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game a special deal: $400,000 to “educate” voters on predator control. The money -- spent mostly on a video, glossy brochures and public presentations -- was meant to persuade and reassure Alaskans that predator control is essential and effective. 

Firmly convinced he’s doing the right thing, the new director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation at Fish and Game, Corey Rossi, is taking predator control to new levels. For the first time since statehood, Alaska has targeted grizzly bears for large-scale population reductions, not by hunters but by agents of the state.

The publicity campaign, Rossi, Governor Sean Parnell and the Alaska Legislature would like you to believe that scientific experts on predator and prey populations -- particularly the professional wildlife biologists and researchers with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game -- unanimously support killing bears to increase numbers of moose and caribou.

But some of those experts have questioned the efficacy and advisability of reducing numbers of grizzly bears in a peer-reviewed article in the latest edition of the Journal of Wildlife Management.

Trends in grizzly bear management and research

The article, “Trends in Intensive Management of Alaska’s Grizzly Bears, 1980-2010,” summarizes changes in bear hunting regulations in northern, Interior and Western Alaska over the past three decades. 

The study area comprises 76 percent of the state. Outside the study area, in southern coastal areas like Southeast Alaska and the Alaska Peninsula, grizzly bears often have access to salmon. Because they eat lots of salmon, these bears tend to grow larger than those north of the Alaska Range. Although they are the same species, grizzlies that dwell in coastal areas are called brown bears, and have higher trophy value, especially to nonresident hunters who pay high fees and are required to spend tens of thousands of dollars on professional guides and related services. Brown bears are valuable game animals. They have influential commercial interests opposed to reducing their populations. 

But other grizzly bears have much less support from hunters and guides. Beginning in 1980, the Department of Fish and Game has attempted to reduce grizzly bear abundance in three-fourths of the state -- the study area -- by liberalizing hunting regulations. 

Fish and Game was serious about reducing the number of grizzly bears, but it tried to do so the traditional way, by increasing harvests by hunters. By the authors’ count, between 1995 and 2010 the Alaska Board of Game relaxed hunting regulations 124 times in the study area, primarily by increasing the number of bears a hunter was allowed to shoot in a one to four-year period, extending the hunting season, or waiving the $25 tag fee for resident hunters. During the same period the board restricted grizzly bear hunting on only two occasions.

Before 1980, hunters were limited to one grizzly bear every four years. By 2007, over 99 percent of the study area allowed hunters at least one grizzly every year.

In 1975-76 no place in the study area allowed grizzly bear hunting seasons of more than 100 days. By 2010-11 all of the study area was open to hunting at least 100 days, 68 percent of the area had seasons longer than 300 days, and grizzly bears could be hunted in 16 percent of the study area at least 350 days each year. 

These regulatory changes substantially increased the harvest of grizzly bears in the study area. The average annual harvest from 1976 to 1980 was 387 bears. By 2004-2008 the average annual harvest had reached 827 bears, an average increase of 4% per year. But hunter kills were considered to be insufficient in areas where moose or caribou populations were still deemed too low to satisfy the demand for human consumption. 

Is grizzly control effective -- or warranted?

Wolves have long been hunted, trapped, poisoned, and shot from aircraft to increase prey populations. Because public hunting and trapping in Alaska are unable to reduce wolf populations and keep them low, in the past decade the state has increasingly relied on predator control agents. Now Alaska’s bears are being tossed into the predator-control arena. 

This is not a new phenomenon either. What is new is that Alaska is bucking a 50-year hiatus on state-sponsored bear control. Before statehood, many Alaskans regarded grizzly bears as dangerous vermin. The celebrated brown bears of Kodiak Island were nominated for eradication because they ate salmon and cattle. This was during the Dark Ages of fish and game management, when bounties were paid not just for wolves, but harbor seals, bald eagles, and Dolly Varden char.

Following statehood, Alaska’s new wildlife managers attempted to raise the status of wolves, bears, eagles and other predators from varmints to valued species. However, moose and caribou hunters have always outnumbered wolf and bear hunters, and hunter tolerance of wolves and bears dipped after moose and caribou populations declined beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Wildlife managers attribute those declines to a combination of severe winters, predation, and high hunter harvests. You can’t do much about the weather -- and moose and caribou were still in high demand as meat and trophies -- so many hunters and some wildlife managers returned to the earlier paradigm, demanding fewer wild predators.

Predator control was facilitated and accelerated in 1994 when the Alaska Legislature enacted the intensive management law. In my opinion, this law ignores a much broader public interest in wildlife resources. The state’s constitution mandates making all wildlife, not only moose and caribou, “available for maximum use consistent with the public interest” and conserving wildlife according to “the sustained yield principle, subject to preferences among beneficial uses.” This suggests that the state’s constitutional convention recognized the value of all Alaska’s wildlife and anticipated it would be managed holistically for all Alaskans. I've yet to find anything in the constitution about Alaska becoming the world’s largest game ranch. Nevertheless, the intensive management law required the Alaska Board of Game to elevate human consumption of wild animals over other beneficial uses, such as conserving natural diversity, tourism, or the satisfaction of knowing some corner of the world is not completely dominated by humans.

Before the legislature’s intervention, managing Alaska’s wildlife was like fixing grandpa’s gold watch. It entailed routine fine-tuning and replacement of springs, sprockets and cogs, the regulatory moving parts required to precisely apportion the resources of a complex world. The intensive management law removed essentially all the tools from the toolbox except one. The legislature expects Fish and Game to fix the watch with a hammer.

In the late 1990s, the National Research Council, at Governor Tony Knowles’ behest, convened a committee to independently examine the research, policies, laws, and options for predator control in Alaska. The NRC is a private, nonprofit research arm of the National Academy of Sciences whose mission is to improve government decision-making based on expert, independent reviews. They concluded, in the words of the committee’s chairman, Dr. Gordon Orians, that “all previous predator reduction and control operations in Alaska were so poorly designed that the results, even if they had been adequately monitored, could not have assessed the relative contributions of various factors to any observed changes in populations of either predators or their prey.” 

The NRC recommended a laundry list of changes to help Alaskans determine whether the state’s expenditures on predator control were yielding benefits that exceeded costs. Orians, cited in the journal article, believes Alaska’s recent predator control programs “have been initiated under the assumption (or conviction) that predators are the cause [of reduced prey populations] and that the solution to the ‘problem’ is intensive predator control.” 

According to the journal article, prior to 2000 Fish and Game conducted many research projects on grizzly bears in the study area. Since 2000, only one grizzly bear study has been funded in the study area by the legislature. Monitoring grizzly bear populations is difficult, expensive, and imprecise. Unfortunately, population trends are difficult to detect based on earlier estimates.

The article presumes grizzly bear densities are already low in the study area, based on a 1997 estimate of less than 40 bears per 386 square miles. Low densities increase the likelihood that declines will go undetected. Compounding this concern, grizzly bear reproductive rates are among the lowest for North American mammals, so their populations are less equipped to rebound when overharvested. The authors remind us that these factors -- high harvests, low densities and low reproductive rates --contributed to the near extinction of grizzly bears in the contiguous 48 states a century ago.

One might assume that, given the current administration’s penchant for reducing grizzly populations as much as possible, there is no need to periodically tally the survivors. This is bad policy. With no objective measure of success, how do we know predator control actually increases the human harvest of ungulates? How do we know whether it’s cost effective? And on the policy end of the scale, how do we know whether most Alaskans support reducing grizzly bear numbers to increase moose and caribou?

It’s just an experiment

Stung by the NRC’s critique, Fish and Game biologists have attempted to design more definitive studies. The most recently published research by department biologists, Rod Boertje and others in 2009 and 2010 and Mark Keech and others in 2011, show moose populations increasing after predator populations were substantially reduced. But these studies, the authors of the journal article contend, demonstrated an effect from fewer wolves and black bears, not grizzly bears. Savvy wildlife managers know there is little solid evidence that grizzly bears limit growth of moose or caribou populations. So Fish and Game calls the current rash of intensive bear-control efforts “experiments.”

The authors are well aware that both black and grizzly bears can be effective predators on moose calves, but it remains unclear whether reducing grizzly bear populations will increase calf survival. A calf eaten by a grizzly may have been just as likely to be killed by another predator, or disease, or accident, or an inexperienced mother. The point is that controversial and potentially destructive programs to control predators should be fiscally and scientifically justifiable. Fish and Game has spent millions of dollars -- in the field, in meetings, in public relations, and in the courtroom -- to implement and defend predator control. Are we harvesting millions of dollars worth of additional moose and caribou?

Predator control is seldom warranted ecologically, and is more usually politically driven. The authors were unable to find any place in Alaska in the past three decades where regulations were tightened when moose or caribou populations rebounded. Too many moose or caribou can damage critical winter ranges, throwing their populations into a tailspin. But some people fail to understand that you can have too much of a good thing. Because some hunters keep demanding more moose, more caribou, predator control doesn’t appear to have a political exit strategy. “Success” is a moving target because some hunters are never satisfied with the current availability of moose or caribou.

Ecological research in recent decades has found that predator control isn’t a simple equation: less predators = more prey. Removing large numbers of predators rattles down the food chain, and often results in unintended consequences, not just among prey species and other predators but on the health, abundance, and diversity of plants themselves. If the results of predator control are monitored at all by Fish and Game, the objective is to prove that more moose and caribou are available for hunting next year and the year after that. No one is looking at the long-term effects of permanently reducing populations of Alaska’s large predators.

Unlike wolves, bears don’t run in packs, and they aren’t easily hunted from the air against a snowy backdrop. They hibernate in winter. Bear-control methods are mutating rapidly as regulators cast about for any method to reduce numbers that doesn’t involve poison. Across Cook Inlet from Anchorage, in Unit 16B, recent regulations allow black bears to be snared, there is no limit to the number that can be shot by a control agent, female bears with cubs may be shot or snared (agents are encouraged to kill their cubs), bears may be shot on the same day that the agent flies into the area, and bear hides and skulls may be sold. These methods were anathema to professional wildlife managers in Alaska until recently. There has been no solid evidence that black bear control is working in Unit 16B. And now predator-control advocates are focusing their attention on grizzly bears. The board of game recently approved snaring grizzly bears in Unit 16B.

Conscientious wildlife managers want evidence that predator control works, but their politically-appointed bosses are satisfied with calling the predator control efforts “experiments” even though most are designed to test nothing. I don’t know what “experiment” means to a nonscientist. I suspect in this case it is being used as window-dressing because there is seldom a clear commitment to funding the required experimental design, including long-term monitoring. The NRC also recommended that “all control activities should be viewed as experiments.” But their meaning was to design each program with clearly specified monitoring protocols and to avoid political interference so that, at some point, costs and benefits could be assessed. 

The new regulations and control methods currently being tested on black bears are likely to spread to other areas of the state and, ultimately, to managing grizzly bears.  But don’t worry. It’s just an experiment. A never-ending, often non-scientific experiment.

Challenging entrenched policy

The Journal of Wildlife Management is the most prestigious periodical for professional wildlife managers, and the recent article mirrors the concerns raised by the NRC and many other wildlife scientists regarding Alaska’s overenthusiastic predator control programs. A related issue -- raised by 53 former employees with over 1,000 years of accumulated experience with Fish and Game (39 signed the initial letter and 14 signed a follow-up letter) -- is the inexperience, political bias, and single-minded advocacy of predator control displayed by the state’s director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation.

Rossi has no previous education or experience in scientific wildlife management. His previous work experience was in animal damage control; in other words, hazing and reducing populations of wildlife to benefit ranchers, farmers, and airports. The 53 former state biologists referenced Rossi’s utter lack of education or experience in wildlife management and research, calling him a “single issue advocate who lacks the educational background necessary for an entry-level biologist position.” In 1997 the NRC acknowledged the Alaska Department of Fish and Game was a leader, albeit an imperfect one, in the scientific study of predator-prey interactions. I wonder what they would think about Governor Palin’s and Governor Parnell’s appointment of Rossi.

Politics is one way we allocate resources, and that job should never be left totally to science. But when politicians force scientists and managers to allocate resources for a select few – in this case some hunters and guides – and ignore the majority of the public, it seems as though the pendulum has swung too far.

The authors of the article are Sterling Miller, John Schoen, Jim Faro, and David Klein.  Anyone familiar with bear research and management in Alaska should recognize the first three names. Their cumulative careers with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game total 72 years. Klein was a wildlife biologist and research supervisor with the department from 1959 to 1962, and has dedicated 50 years as a professor of wildlife management and ecology, in addition to over three decades as leader and senior scientist of the Alaska Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. All four signed the 2010 letter protesting the appointment of Rossi.

None of the authors works for the Department of Fish and Game now. If they did, they wouldn’t be allowed to publish an article challenging state policy. Don’t be fooled by the illusion of unanimity among the state’s current crop of professional wildlife biologists.  Some have already been punished for sharing concerns about predator control outside the department or even voicing their concerns internally, in memos and meetings. A healthy debate on predator control -- dampened by a $400,000 publicity campaign and smothered by hush orders on professional staff -- is not going to happen under the current administration.

Alaska Dispatch encourages a diversity of opinion and community perspectives. The opinions expressed herein are those of the contributor and are not necessarily endorsed or condoned by Alaska Dispatch.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist.