Apparently for the first time in Alaska, a private hunting group plans to give a state predator control program a big shot in the arm with a concerted effort to help hundreds of hunters indiscriminately, and legally, kill as many black bears as possible in a game unit west of Anchorage.
The Alaska chapter of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, a nonprofit founded here last year, hopes to rotate hunters through about a dozen camps and baiting stations in Game Management Unit 16B, where state biologists estimate there are only about two moose to every black bear.
Ralph Seekins, a founding SFW board member and former state senator, said the group's mission is "management-for-abundance oriented" rather than pro-predator control. However, predator control often fits within the mission of the group, which is entirely funded by donations and has chapters in about a half-dozen Western states, he said.
"In a lot of situations, when you have a declining or depleted prey population, oftentimes the quickest turnaround is to apply some targeted predator management," said Corey Rossi, a board member of sister organization Sportsmen for Habitat, which works with SFW. "That doesn't mean a war on bears any more than it would mean a war on wolves or any other predator."
The effort will try to assist the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's attempts to dramatically reduce the number of bears, which pick off spring calves before they can run on the unit's marshy terrain, said area wildlife biologist Tony Kavalok. The area lies north and west of Cook Inlet generally from Redoubt Bay to Denali National Preserve.
There are between 3,600 and 3,700 moose in the area -- a "pitiful" number that works out to fewer than one per square mile, Kavalok said. Officials are hoping to increase that to about 6,500, but that is difficult to do with about 1,900 black bears -- the primary predators of concern in the unit, he said. Fish and Game wants to reduce the black bear population by roughly 60 percent, or to about 760 bears, he said.
To do that, the game board liberalized regulations in the unit last April by declaring open season on black bears for bear control permit-holders, who are allowed to bait black bears using dog food, carcasses or other foods and kill an unlimited number of them, including cubs and sows with cubs.
Permit holders can also shoot black bears the same day they fly as long as they are at least 300 feet from the aircraft. Hunters still must salvage the hides and skulls so the department can seal them, but they are not required to salvage the meat, Kavalok said.
The SFW effort involves rotating several hundred people in six-day shifts into about a dozen camps, timed to coincide with the legal baiting season in the area, from April 15 to June 30, Rossi said. The group will assist hunters with bait, food and transportation costs where possible, he said.
While the efforts are still in the planning stages, he said at least 150 hunters -- SFW has about 2,000 members in Alaska -- have expressed interest in the effort to speed up a natural process of restoring equilibrium to the area by targeting all black bears.
"We're going to try to discourage trophy hunting," Rossi said. "This is a predator management effort by the department and what we don't want it to turn into is a cherry-picking deal."
Though the unit -- laden with swampy land that is expensive to access -- is not a popular sport-hunting destination, its moose are an important subsistence harvest for Bush Alaskans, said Tom Harris, chief executive of the Tyonek Native Corp.
"We're down to some of the lowest moose populations on record," Harris said. "We have an out-of-control predation issue. It's easy to blame another human being, but it's difficult to blame a cuddly bear."
However, not everyone agrees there is a need to control the black bear population in the area.
Dave Lyon, co-chairman of Alaska Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a nonprofit that promotes ethical hunting practices, said his group is not opposed to predator control when it is necessary, but that doesn't seem to be the case in this unit, where the black bear numbers appear inflated.
SFW going out and "killing everything with pointy teeth" will only result in bad publicity for hunters in general, he said.
"They want to game farm, and pretty much they have one song they sing, and it's predator control," he said. "We don't believe that just so hunters can go kill more moose is a good reason to go kill a bunch of bears."
Seekins, however, said without some controls, bears in the unit would take so many moose there wouldn't be any left for humans. "I don't know if we're trying to handle it ourselves," he said, "but we're adding a facet to the process that the state doesn't have."
A large, privately operated effort to cut back on the bears does leave concerns, though.
"We've got to make sure that it works legally, and then also that they're able to accomplish this without infringing on our sport hunting as well as other control activities," said Kavalok, the state biologist.
The group has no plans to squeeze out other hunters, said Aaron Bloomquist, chairman of the Anchorage Fish and Game Advisory Committee and an SFW member. Efforts will focus on areas where there is little hunting pressure and an abundance of black bears, he said.
"We're just trying to find some ways to get our moose back that Anchorage people have traditionally hunted across the Inlet," Bloomquist said.
Other concerns range from how the plan will affect the guiding industry to what impact it could have on brown bears, which are not allowed to be baited but could be attracted by black bear carcasses piling up if the hunters are successful, Rossi said.
Those issues are still being addressed and discussed with wildlife officials, but Rossi said having too many carcasses is not likely going to be an issue.
"Probably the least of our worries is that we've got to slow down because we're going to reach their quota," he said.
Find James Halpin online at adn.com/contact/jhalpin or call him at 257-4589.