The Board of Game has strengthened and expanded a predator control program that's already larger than any in decades.
The board broadened two of the five areas where land-and-shoot and aerial wolf kills are allowed. It nearly tripled the size of one of those areas, to 18,750 square miles, to protect caribou near the Canadian border.
The board also made it easier for hunters to kill bears in the five areas. For example, it loosened restrictions on same-day airborne bait-hunting.
Predator control now covers about 9 percent of the state. It has not been that extensive since at least the 1970s, said Fish and Game Department spokeswoman Cathie Harms.
In the three-day meeting, which began Friday in Anchorage, the board also made technical regulation changes intended to protect its predator control programs from court challenge.
The board's changes are "wonderful," said Rod Arno, executive director of the pro-hunting Alaska Outdoor Council. Caribou and moose numbers fell severely after predator control was stopped for eight years, he said.
It was revived in 2003. Drastic measures are still necessary to increase big-game populations, he said.
But opponents from the East Coast to Anchorage are poring over the new regulations to find an opening for another legal battle.
Aerial shooters and pilots permitted by the state have killed more than 550 wolves in the three years since state predator-kill programs were renewed.
State biologists say moose numbers are up in areas where the program has been in place the longest, around McGrath in the Interior and near Glennallen in Southcentral Alaska.
"We're staying the course," said board chairman Mike Fleagle.
Efforts once focused primarily on moose, but the state is now implementing predator control to try to increase a key caribou population.
For example, it greatly expanded the predator control program in game management units 12 and 20E near the Canadian border to reduce pressure on the Fortymile caribou herd around Tok.
The herd now numbers about 42,000 animals. There are historical reports it was many times that size in the 1920s, said state biologist Roy Nowlin. Killing more predators, he hopes, will help the state to increase the herd to between 50,000 and 100,000.
The state is also increasingly taking action to limit bears, which kill and eat moose and caribou calves in many areas and are slowing the program to expand game-animal populations, Fleagle said.
To kill more black bears in the five predator control areas -- which are located mostly in the Interior and in an area north of Cook Inlet across from Anchorage -- board members waived a long-standing law against hunting on the same day the hunter has been airborne.
Airborne hunters can now use bait to attract and kill black bears immediately after they've landed. Black bear hides taken from those areas can also be sold. Hunters do not need a special permit, as required by aerial gunners and pilots hunting wolves, to take advantage of the new law.
The board created a special brown bear reduction area east of McGrath -- an area of about 528 square miles -- and expanded another area near Tok from 2,700 square miles to 4,050 square miles.
The board has given hunters in the two areas new incentives to kill brown bears. Unlike in other areas of the state, brown bears can be baited, hides taken in those areas can be sold, and bag limits are more generous.
Only three brown bears have been killed in the Tok area under the program, which was created two years ago, Harms said.
The changes may not significantly hurt bear populations, said retired state and federal biologist Vic Van Ballenberghe, a former Board of Game member and opponent of the state's wolf-kill program.
Black bears are hard to kill because they prefer forested areas and reproduce relatively quickly, he said. And while brown bears range over large, open areas and reproduce more slowly than black bears, he's not expecting the number of hunters in the two areas to increase sharply.
"The question is still open," he said.
Others fear the board may go further. It considered, but didn't pass, a proposal to allow bear snaring. The proposal, favored by the Alaska Outdoor Council, will come up again, predicted Valerie Brown, an Anchorage attorney representing Washington, D.C.-based Defenders of Wildlife.
"It's really clear they want bears out of these areas," she said.
The board took one proposal at the meeting -- to let hunters on snowmachines chase and kill wolves a short drive from Big Lake and Wasilla -- and changed it entirely, to allow fall black bear baiting west of the Parks Highway, roughly between Kashwitna and Talkeetna.
Brown said that move may have been illegal because it wasn't posted for public notice.
Fleagle defended the measure. It wasn't meant for the general public to consider, he said, but was part of an intensive management action to control predators.
State biologists estimate that Alaska has 7,000 to 11,000 wolves, 35,000 to 40,000 brown bears and more than 100,000 black bears.
Daily News reporter Alex deMarban can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4310.