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Back To The Past For Management Of Large Carnivores In Alaska | Science Trends

Back To The Past For Management Of Large Carnivores In Alaska

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, North American bears, wolves, and mountain lions were viewed as threats to human welfare and economies, and governments at all levels attempted to cleanse the landscape of them. These efforts were successful to the point that by the mid-20th century south of Canada, brown/grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) and wolves (Canis lupus) were nearly exterminated, and mountain lions (Pumaconcolor) and American black bears (Ursus americanus) greatly reduced in numbers and distribution. In his youth, even the founder of the wildlife management discipline, Aldo Leopold, participated in predator reduction efforts until he famously wrote that he watched the “fierce green fire dying” in the eyes of a wolf he’d just shot and came to realize the critical role wolves and other predator species play in ecosystem function (Ripple et al. 2017).

In a recent viewpoint article published in PLoS Biology, Oregon State University professor William Ripple and 3 colleagues retired from Alaskan state and federal wildlife management agencies documented a reversion in Alaska to early 20th-century thinking about large carnivores (Ripple et al. 2019). Alaskan wildlife management authorities are mandated by a 1994 state law to conduct “Intensive Management”  whenever the supply of moose (Alces alces) and caribou (Rangifer tarandus) are found to be inadequate to meet hunters’ demands for meat from these species.

Ripple and his colleagues point out that the most common form of “Intensive Management” involves greatly liberalized hunting and, in the case of wolves, trapping regulations for large carnivores. These regulations have been liberalized across most of Alaska. In addition, there are designated “Predation Control Areas” which allow the shooting of wolves and bears from aircraft and have allowed hunters to use snares to capture brown/grizzly and American black bears.

The liberalizations of hunting regulations and corresponding increase in hunter kills have been most extreme for brown/grizzly bears, as documented in an earlier paper published in the journal Ursus by some of the same authors (Miller et al. 2017). In an area of 1,157,498 km2 these authors examined (termed the Liberalized Hunting Area {LHA} constituting 76% of Alaska) between 1995 and 2017, hunting regulations for this species were liberalized 222 times compared to only 4 times regulations were made more conservative. The annual individual resident hunting quota (bag limit) increased 8-fold in many areas, and resident hunting seasons were >300 days in 73% of the area and >350 days in 19.8%. Tag fees to hunt brown/grizzly bears were eliminated almost everywhere. Since 2010, hunters are permitted to shoot brown/grizzly bears over bait in an increasing percentage of Alaska (totaling 53.7% of the LHA by 2017). In a further effort to encourage hunters to take more brown/grizzly bears, hunters are now allowed to sell the hides and skulls of brown grizzly bears they kill in >30% of the LHA.

In response to these liberalized hunting regulations, brown/grizzly bear harvests increased dramatically, but the impact on brown/grizzly bear populations is unknown because, since 2000, Alaska state wildlife authorities have published no studies on trends in populations in the portion of the state subject to intensive management for this species. In their 2017 Ursus paper, the authors document a recent decline in hunter harvests of brown/grizzly bears but cannot say whether this is because of fewer bears or other possible causes. Nobody knows.

Not even federal national interest conservation areas are immune from the State of Alaska’s predator control hunting regulations. This includes Alaskan National Preserves (managed by the National Park Service (NPS)) and National Wildlife Refuges (NWR) administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 2015, NPS adopted a rule which would preclude implementation of some of the state’s predator reduction regulations on National Preserves. However, in the spring of 2018, the senior staff of the Department of the Interior (DOI) proposed a new rule replacing the 2015 NPS rule with one that would require NPS to “align” hunting regulations on National Preserves with the State of Alaska’s regulations. Similarly, an effort by the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge to disallow brown/grizzly bear baiting on Kenai NWR lands is being challenged by current senior staff of the DOI. These high-level DOI initiatives undercut the efforts of federal managers to manage wildlife on federal lands in the national interest. Formerly prescribed naturalness and natural diversity guidelines for these federal conservation areas would be replaced by regulations that are aligned with the state’s desire to manage these national interest conservation lands more like “game farms” for the benefit of local Alaskan moose and caribou hunters.

Since 1994, the State of Alaska’s intensive management efforts have been mandated by state statute (Alaska Statutes §16.02.255) and since 2017, the efforts of Department of the Interior line staff in National Wildlife Refuges and National Preserves to manage in the national interest have been weakened by the philosophical changes of appointed senior DOI administrators. This effectively means that only retired federal state and federal staff can speak out openly in opposition to the changes that are ongoing in Alaska. Except for professor Ripple, the authors of the PLoS Biology and Ursus papers are retired Alaskan wildlife or NPS managers who co-authored these manuscripts to inform their professional colleagues about what is happening, mostly under the radar, in Alaska.

Also, Leopold learned almost a century ago that creating a “hunters paradise” for deer hunters through predator control was something “…that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with…” Alaska remains a place where the opportunity to get wildlife management right still exists. The mistakes of the past don’t have to be repeated.

These findings are described in the article entitled Large Carnivores under Assault in Alaska, recently published in the journal PLOS Biology. This study was conducted by William J. Ripple, Sterling D. Miller, John W. Schoen, and Sanford P. Rabinowitch.

References:

  1. Leopold, Also. 1966. A Sand County Almanac with essays on Conservation from Round River. Oxford University Press, New York. [Essay on “Thinking like a Mountain”.
  2. Miller, S.M., J.W. Schoen, and C.C. Schwartz, 2017. Trends in brown bear reduction efforts in Alaska, 1980-2017. Ursus 2017. 28:136-148. https://bioone.org/journals/Ursus/volume-28/issue-2/URSU-D-17-00002.1/Trends-in-brown-bear-reduction-efforts-in-Alaska-19802017/10.2192/URSU-D-17-00002.1.short.
  3. Ripple, W.J., J.A. Estes, R.L. Beschta, C.C.Wilmers, et al. 2017. Status and ecological effects of the world’s largest carnivores. Science 2014. 343(6167):1241484. 1241484PMID:24408439.
  4. Ripple, W.J., S.D. Miller, J.W. Schoen, and S.P. Rabinowitch. 2019. Large carnivores under assault in Alaska. PLoS Biology 17(1):e3000090. https://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.3000090.

About The Author

Sterling Miller

Sterling Miller retired 20 years ago from his job as a Research Biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game where he studied bears and predator-prey relationships. He subsequently worked as a Senior Wildlife Biologist with the National Wildlife Foundation. He currently works as a wildlife consultant at Dunrovin Ranch and Research in Lolo Montana.