For the first time in the state's history, Alaskans can legally sell bear hides.
The Board of Game agreed to the change Monday in its effort to increase moose populations in five areas of the state where aerial wolf hunting is allowed.
The decision allows the sale of brown bear hides, which may be worth several thousand dollars, only if they're harvested from a 2,700-square-mile section of northeastern Alaska. Located in a portion of Game Management Unit 20E, the area is west of the Taylor Highway between Chicken and Dot Lake.
Black bear hides can also be sold if they're harvested from the five predator control areas, which comprise 6 percent of the state. Most of the five areas are in the Interior.
"It's a big change," said Matt Robus, director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation. "It's assumed this will provide some motivation for people to go out and take more bears."
The move comes shortly after a state Superior Court judge invalidated the state's aerial wolf hunting program. The judge said in part that the state needed to do a better job of showing that it has tried other alternatives to boost moose numbers. The Board of Game reinstated the program Wednesday by tweaking its rules at an emergency meeting.
Game Board chairman Mike Fleagle said the board has loosened restrictions on bear hunting in the predator control areas, such as increasing the length of the season and removing the $25 fee for residents.
But enough moose predators haven't been killed in some areas, some board members said.
"This is to get the bear off the moose," said Cliff Judkins of Wasilla.
Unit 20E, the only area where brown bear baiting is allowed, is especially problematic, said Fish and Game spokesman Bruce Bartley. The Taylor Highway is closed in the winter, and only a small number of people live in nearby villages. Nine brown bears were killed in the area last year.
Moose numbers in the unit also are only half of what they should be, Bartley said.
Brown bears are a big part of the problem. Between 1981 and 1988, they killed 52 percent of the newborn calves in the area, he said.
Some board members, like Fleagle and Judkins, said they would support a statewide plan for the sale of black bear hides. But others, such as Ted Spraker, Ron Sommerville and Ben Grussendorf, sought a limited approach that could be reviewed at the next statewide board meeting in two years.
The bear hides must be sold with claws attached to prevent hunters from harvesting the claws and leaving the hide. Skulls can also be sold. Hides must be reported to the Department of Fish and Game so vital information can be tracked. The changes could be in effect by the spring bear-hunting season.
State wildlife biologist Karen Blejwas, who conducted a recent survey of western states, said black bear hides are legally sold in Montana, Utah and Idaho.
A company called Moscow Hide and Fur in Idaho sells tanned black bear hides for about $300 to $600, according to its Web site. Individual claws more than three inches long go for as much as $75.
Bartley said brown bear hides have been legally sold only at the state-sponsored auction during Fur Rondy in Anchorage. The hides, often collected from illegal kills, can sell for several thousand dollars if they're larger than nine feet, Bartley said.
The new regulations may give Alaska the distinction of being the only state where brown bear hides can legally be sold. Wildlife managers said they hadn't heard of other states that allow it.
The change is a significant departure from state law. In the past, pieces of hides and claws could only be sold if they were parts of handicrafts.
The state has never allowed the sale of full bear hides. During the statehood effort, many Alaskans were concerned that federal management laws had targeted wolves and bears too ruthlessly, Bartley said.
"Wolves and bears were taking it in the shorts, and the (new) state wanted to treat them as animals worthy of respect in their own right," he said.
Things are different now, he said. The loosened hunting restrictions on bears and wolves are being done in "a very limited area and in a very limited fashion."
Paul Joslin, a biologist with Alaskans for a Representative Board of Wildlife, said it was unnerving that brown bears are an increased target.
"Bears are the slowest-breeding land mammals we have," he said. "If you take a lot, you could have implications for decades."
Brown bear sows, especially those in Unit 20E, which live on a diet of squirrels and berries, need about 10 years to reach sexual maturity and raise their first litter of cubs, Bartley said.
But state biologists will close the area to hunting by emergency order if the brown bear population drops to a minimum of 54 bears, he said.
Fish and Game officials estimate there are 35,000 to 40,000 brown bears in the state and more than 100,000 black bears.
Daily News reporter Alex deMarban can be reached at email@example.com.