My adventure began with a photograph in The Anchorage Times that showed bear biologist Larry Aumiller with two tiny black bear cubs.
The caption explained that the cubs' mother had been illegally killed, somewhere in Alaska's Interior. Two of the four orphaned cubs had already been sent to zoos in the Lower 48. While state officials sought homes for the remaining pair, Larry had been asked to watch them.
I'd met Larry in 1987, while working on a story about McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, which he managed. In the years since, we'd become good friends, sharing both a passion for bears and a wish to improve bear-human relations. It happened that he lived a short drive away. So I called and asked if it would be okay to come over and meet the bears.
A short while later, I was knocking on his door.
"Okay, where are they?" I wanted to know.
"C'mon this way," Larry said, heading toward the kitchen. "Your timing is pretty good.
It's just about time to feed them."
The bears were tiny, no bigger than a Scottish terrier. And as cute as any tail-wagging puppy or meowing kitten. Anyone who likes animals at all would have loved these cubs. Like most puppies they were frisky, curious critters.
Over the next hour or two I played with the cubs, held them, fed them through baby bottles. I felt the soft warmth of their furred bodies, the sharpness of their nibbling teeth, and my own delight in their presence. I laughed aloud at the bears, at Larry and me.
Sometime during that afternoon I sprawled, belly down, on the kitchen floor. One of the cubs climbed aboard, crawled up my back, and began to sniff and lick and paw at my neck and head. After a few minutes, he discovered my right ear. Grabbing hold, he began to chew and suck on it, much like (I guessed) he would suckle his mother's teat.
Suddenly the cub began to purr. The purrs were like that of a cat, except deeper, more rumbling. It was something I'd never imagined a bear might do.
I lay there quietly, breathing in the purrs and the tickling of my ears, and felt as content, even peaceful, as I'd been in a long time.
I left Larry's thinking this was among the best couple of hours I'd spent in years. I also left his house wishing that everyone could have an afternoon like mine. Perhaps even people who feared or hated bears simply because of what they'd heard or read or thought they knew might be changed by such an experience. Maybe they would be less inclined to consider the only good bear to be a dead one.
I began to seriously follow the state's management of wildlife in the late 1980s, while reporting for The Anchorage Times. Over the next several years, I talked with numerous biologists and spent many hours at Board of Game meetings.
After The Times went out of business in 1992, I stopped being a regular at Board of Game meetings. Even as my attendance has lagged, my involvement in Alaska's wildlife politics has increased substantially.
The first Board of Game I covered was immeasurably more balanced, moderate, and independent than the one we've got today. Its members included a federal wildlife researcher, a filmmaker, an outdoors columnist, a hunting guide, and leaders in the Native community. Their attitudes toward wildlife covered just about the entire spectrum, which provoked lively discussions. But there was no group think, no larger agenda as there seems to be today, with a board that is dominated by men aligned with the Alaska Outdoor Council, a politically connected group of mostly white, male, urban sport hunters, who are fervent predator-control advocates. They've espoused a management system that in recent years has served an ever-narrower slice of Alaska's population and, at every turn, has increased opportunities for recreational hunters and trappers to kill predators.
Under Governor Sarah Palin the current board would be entirely white, urban, and male, except for an uproar after appointments she made this past winter. Palin backtracked and added one Native voice with rural roots to the panel. But there's not a whisper of hope that it might include a non-Native who thinks outside the AOC box, someone who's more of a wildlife watcher or naturalist or independent wildlife scientist than a hunter or trapper.
With allies in high places - a friendly governor and like-minded legislative leaders - and little organized opposition, its members know they can do damn well do as they please. The result is ever more egregious predator-control programs.
A good example of that is happening right now in Game Management Unit 16, which encompasses stream drainages on the west side of Cook Inlet, from the Susitna River south to Redoubt Creek (which flows off Redoubt Volcano).
Biologists have determined that close to 2,000 black bears live in that part of Southcentral Alaska and they're killing way too many moose calves. "A staggering percentage" is the way Board of Game chairman Cliff Judkins has described it, though there's really no way to know what percentage are being killed by black bears, brown bears, or wolves. So last year the board decided to implement a control program that even its proponents say is unprecedented.
Last fall, and again this spring, the state has encouraged hunters to establish bait stations throughout much of GMU 16; though as one biologist has noted, it's not really accurate to call the participants hunters; they're really "agents of the state." In any case, they're permitted to kill all black bears they see, including sows with cubs and the cubs themselves. There's no limit to the number of black bears that may be killed and meat doesn't have to be salvaged, though hides and skulls do. To further motivate participants, they may obtain permits to sell those skulls along with tanned or untanned hides with claws attached, thus earning some additional cash for their efforts. This, I must emphasize, is an extraordinary measure, at odds with usual bans on the sale of bear parts.
Along with many people who observed their March 2007 deliberations, some Board of Game members were initially disturbed by the specter of people killing the mothers of first-year cubs. That would also be a death sentence for the cubs; helpless to survive on their own, they would either be killed by predators, drown, or, even worse, starve to death. But eventually the board mustered up the will to approve the killing of all black bears, whatever sex or age.
Alaska's indigenous peoples know the black bear by many different names. Various Athabascan tribes call the animal sis, ghedisla, or shoh zhraii. To the Tlingit it is s'eek, to Eyaks, tsiya, and to Eskimos, iyyagrig. Whatever its name, though, the species has traditionally been an important part of Alaska Native subsistence culture throughout its range. The bear's meat is an important food and its fat, rendered into lard, is used for cooking. In some areas the hide serves as a mattress or blanket.
The black bear also ranks high among some tribes as a ceremonial delicacy and spirit being with great power. One is the Koyukon Athabascan tribe of Alaska's Interior, whose relationship with sis is described at length and made easily accessible to non-Native residents in Richard Nelson's Make Prayers to the Raven. Nelson joined the Koyukon people to study their culture, but as the weeks and months passed, they became valued teachers in ways he hadn't expected. Among other things, they taught him "an entirely new way of seeing an environment I had experienced over the previous ten years and thought I knew well."
The Koyukon people's knowledge of black bears, Nelson writes, is "deep and detailed, their hunting methods sophisticated and complex." Beyond a harvesting of food, the hunt itself is "a quest for prestige and a high expression of manhood," both deriving from the fact that the black bear, for Koyukons, is positioned "near the apex of power among spirits of the natural world." Thus both hunters and non-hunters among the Koyukon people have traditionally treated black bears with the greatest respect.
As it wanders through our modern world, the black bear is something of an enigma. The smallest and most common of Alaska's three bears, it is innately more secretive and less aggressive than either the grizzly or polar bear. A creature of forest and shadow, it moves like a phantom through woodlands. Yet for all its inborn wariness - or perhaps because of it - the black bear has proved remarkably adaptable to human development. And human intolerance.
The black bear, as Anchorage residents well know, doesn't require vast areas of wilderness to thrive. If there's sufficient food and cover for hiding, members of the species seem equally at home in deep, pristine forests or along the wooded edges of Alaska's urban centers. There the black bear remains mostly invisible - until it develops a taste for human food or garbage. The phantom may become a nuisance, even a threat. A problem bear, we call it.
Ursus americanus is sometimes called the All-American bear, partly because it lives only in North America, but also because it's so common. Biologists estimate a half million black bears inhabit the continent, from Canada to Mexico. Their homelands range from arid Southwest chaparral to eastern swamps, from Northwest rainforest to boreal woodlands.
Black bears occupy three-quarters of Alaska, from the Southeast to the Arctic's Brooks Range. When pressed for population estimates, some biologists guess 30,000 to 100,000 animals. Others won't even try.
Being a forest animal, the black bear is difficult - some would say nearly impossible - to census. Yet the Department of Fish and Game tries, particularly in areas where black bears are believed to be major predators of moose that human hunters want for their own. In GMU 16B, I'm told, the department conducted "an intensive Becker line-transect survey" last spring, after bears had left their dens but before green-up made them nearly impossible to find. Carrying two spotters each, planes flew hundreds of "lines" across Unit 16, while crisscrossing thousands of square miles of terrain.
Based on the number of transects and sightings and using some complicated formulas, statistician Earl Becker (for whom the method is named) estimated about 1,900 bears inhabit the entire unit. He's comfortable with that number, because the weather, the census timing, and the people doing it all were ideal. Tony Kavalok, the area wildlife biologist, believes that estimate may be low, "but in any case we can confidently state that the number is reasonable and scientifically testable."
For centuries humans have widely considered the black bear a lesser bruin than its more charismatic relatives. Even among the Koyukon, the black bear is considered less powerful, both physically and spiritually, than the more menacing grizzly.
The black bear's slighter stature in our imaginations might help explain the lack of public outrage that they've been targeted for slaughter in GMU 16. I suspect that a program that promoted the massacre of brown bears would provoke substantially more protest among Alaskans.
In a little more than five years, Alaska's predator control programs have grown dramatically in both their scale and brazenness, reversing a general trend (with some ups and downs) of diminished state-ordered kills from the early 1980s through 2002, Gov. Tony Knowles' last year in office.
Activists on both sides of the issue will recall that Knowles quickly moved to suspend the state's wolf-control program soon after his December 1994 inauguration. Weeks later, he asked the National Academy of Science to review Alaska's wolf-management policies. That yearlong review concluded wolf control could be effective in some circumstances, but - no surprise here - it is likely to be both costly and controversial. Using the NAS report as his guide, Knowles established three criteria to be met before any future wolf control would proceed under his watch: it must be based on sound science, cost effective, and broadly acceptable to the public.
Knowles' policies put him at odds with the legislature, whose leadership since the early 90s has largely reflected the values of the AOC. Months before Knowles' election, legislators passed (and Governor Wally Hickel signed into law) the so-called "intensive management" bill, which mandates that the highest and best use of most big-game populations in Alaska is to provide for high levels of human harvest. One of the most influential of wildlife statutes, it has provided the foundation for all predator control efforts in recent years.
By their very nature, wildlife populations go through cyclical ups and downs over time. Intensive management conveniently ignores that fact. If ungulate populations - especially moose and caribou - drop, the state's wildlife policy makers and managers are essentially required to do whatever's necessary to "grow" the population back to previous highs-even if naturally unsustainable-so that human hunting opportunities aren't diminished. The easy way to do this, of course, is through predator control.
Depending on your perspective, the legislature had opened the doors to either wildlife heaven or hell.
Even many wildlife managers didn't at first comprehend the potential impacts of intensive management. In a 2002 report to the Board of Game (months before Knowles left office), Wayne Regelin, the director of Alaska's' Division of Wildlife Conservation, described the statutes as "difficult to use and time consuming." And, more importantly: "Their emphasis on predator control is contradicted by public opinion."
Remarkably, he further concluded, "The department will never again conduct widespread and continuous wolf control to increase ungulate populations," both because the costs are too high and the public disapproves of such policies.
But under Frank Murkowski and now Sarah Palin, the state has established a predator control program that now ranges across almost 10 percent of Alaska's total land area. To get around many of its costs, the state permits residents using aircraft to kill wolves, despite the fact that Alaskans have voted twice before to ban such activities. Since the current war on wolves was launched in 2003, close to 790 wolves have been killed by aerial "agents of the state" or nearly 160 annually. This winter aerial gunners had killed "only" 117 wolves as of April 23, largely because the weather wasn't conducive to aerial hunting for much of the season. And high fuel costs surely kept some shooters out of the air. The actual goal for winter 2007-2008 was a remarkable 455 to 670 wolves (including kills by trappers and ground-based hunters).
Even more amazing than the growth of the wolf-control program is the fact that bears are now targeted. Besides the effort to kill up to a thousand or more black bears in GMU 16, the state has increased bear-kill efforts in large swaths of the Interior. In designated control areas, residents may now kill both black bears and grizzlies over bait and can sell the hides and skulls of harvested bears. And now, some members of the Board of Game have suggested that the state consider trapping bears in some areas, a practice currently prohibited in nearly every state.
In the beginning, no one took the GMU 16 bear control program too seriously, including Board of Game members and Fish and Game managers. Both proponents and opponents considered it a largely symbolic action, unlikely to start a stampede of bear hunters - or "agents," if you like - into the area, which is neither cheap nor easy to hunt. The Anchorage Daily News's Craig Medred went so far as to ask, "What if the Alaska Department of Fish and Game scheduled a bear hunt and nobody came?"
Besides being largely roadless - a deterrent to many hunters - much of the unit consists of marshes, thick brush, or lowland forests, all of which make for difficult passage. That means most of the hunting is concentrated along rivers, which limits opportunities, even with bait stations. Some control advocates also consider the requirement to salvage hides and skulls a burden that works against the state's objective.
Such arguments seemed to make sense when those agents of the state killed only 61 black bears last fall, less than 75 kills reported in 2006 by hunters. Forty-four were males; and none were cubs. That kind of effort simply isn't very effective if you're looking to rid the area of most of its bears.
Then, this spring, a private hunting group announced its plans to help out the state's bear-kill program. Spearheaded by former legislators Ralph Seekins and Scott Ogan, the Alaska chapter of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife is actively recruiting hunters to join in an effort that the organizers hope will attract hundreds of people, both residents and nonresidents. Participants will be rotated in and out of several dozen bait stations, many if not all of them located on private land owned by the Tyonek Native Corporation, presumably to keep uninvited parties from interfering with the hunt.
Though it hasn't officially embraced the effort, Fish and Game seems to welcome the additional firepower. In fact the department recently changed the bear-harvest rules in GMU16. The control effort was initially supposed to replace bear hunting in the unit. But only Alaskans can participate in the control program; so to allow non-residents the opportunity to join the SFW black bear enterprise, Fish and Game reinstated the hunt. Because both programs will be going on simultaneously, trophy hunters and those "agents of the state" could be gunning for bears at bait stations only a short distance apart, each operating under different sets of rules. Seem confusing? Imagine the challenge of trying to manage this combination hunt and control program.
Area wildlife biologist Tony Kavalok expresses confidence that Fish and Game personnel, in combination with state troopers, will be able to enforce the dual sets of regulations. But others - including former Board of Game members Vic Van Ballenberghe and Doug Pope - say this combo-kill effort could easily turn into a management mess.
As long as lots of black bears are killed - and maybe a few grizzlies that happen to be lured into the bait stations - the Board of Game and state wildlife managers aren't likely to be overly upset. What's important here is the outcome: lots of dead bears.
My frustration with our state's wildlife-management policies is well documented, and it's shared by many other Alaskans. Some of us are philosophically opposed to predator control as a management tool, while accepting it might be necessary in extreme circumstances. We're disgusted that humans kill other creatures simply because they compete with some of us - in fact a small minority of us - for wild "game." We deplore what is essentially favored-species management and a push to transform parts of Alaska into what are essentially wild-game farms, largely free of predators and rich in moose and caribou.
Sweden seems to be the model for many of these predator-control advocates, but I don't think the large majority of Alaskans want to live in a place where most forested lands are "intensively managed" by timber interests and where bears and wolves are few and far between. (About the size of California, Sweden has an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 bears and 150 or so wolves.)
Contrary to what some may claim, survival or subsistence is not the over-riding issue; in fact many of the pushiest control advocates oppose a subsistence priority. Predator control is about eliminating wolves - and now bears - so that human hunters, many of them urban residents, have a better chance to kill ungulates, particularly moose and caribou.
Control advocates would like to dismiss such complaints as the loony rantings of extremist wolf- and bear-huggers, yet many wildlife scientists and several past Board of Game members are also left shaking their heads in bewilderment at a management regime that has spun, well, out of control. Here I'll share the views of two.
Moose and wolf researcher Vic Van Ballenberghe, an independent sort and a voice of reason during his time on the board, frankly admits he's depressed by changing wildlife policies and the values they represent:
"You know, when I served on the board [in the late 1980s], predator control was pretty much viewed as a last-ditch measure, something to use when moose and caribou populations were pretty seriously depleted. But things really changed in the nineties, as the AOC began to get some political juice and then intensive management got passed. What that did is set the stage for perpetual predator control, because it sets up unrealistic standards and expectations.
"I blame the department for a lot of this mess we're in, because they didn't educate hunters about biological realities. And it really is a mess."
Van Ballenberghe, like me, is also troubled by the public's apparent apathy. While any hint of large-scale predator control got Alaskans riled up in the late eighties and early nineties, residents nowadays seem largely uninvolved, even as the program has grown to include bears. But the conservation community's reticence to get involved is even more puzzling. Only Defenders of Wildlife and the Alaska Wildlife Alliance have loudly protested wolf and bear control efforts during the Murkowski-Palin years. And they've been branded as "animal rights" groups, which in Alaska immediately makes them suspect and easy to dismiss.
At the same time, the more mainstream conservation groups-the Sierra Club, Audubon, National Wildlife Federation, Alaska Center for the Environment, for example-have, in Van Ballenberghe's words, "been gun shy. Somewhere along the line they decided that opposing predator control is a no-win deal. It's discouraging that no genuine, bona fide, middle-of-the-road group has been willing to take this on."
Former Board of Game chairman Doug Pope is another who questions the shift to broad-based predator control. Known for his moderate views on wildlife management, Pope in fact supports wolf control "if a [moose or caribou] population is in decline and it's the best tool available. But right now it's being used for pumping up ungulate populations primarily to benefit urban hunters."
What surprises him most is the inclusion of bears in current predator-control efforts. "When I was on the board [in the early 1990s], bears weren't even on the radar screen. Any attempt to include them was like attacking the Holy Grail. The way the program has been expanded to include bears is what really shocks me."
I carry many other memories of Ursus americanus.
An adult black bear stands and places her front feet against a cabin window and peers inside, leaving paw prints on the glass, then quietly walks away, trailed by her two tiny cubs. A large, heavily muscled male with gleaming ebony coat grazes on emerging plants along a favorite forest trail. A young adult that's climbed high up a cottonwood tree inches its way along a large branch that somehow doesn't snap. A black bear ambles into my front yard while I'm picking strawberries, then turns and gallops away when we spot each other. A distant black bear feeds on berries atop a ridge fiery with autumn's reds and golds. Black bears snatch pinks from a salmon-choked creek, then scurry into patches of thick devil's club, in Southeast Alaska's old-growth rainforest. I carry these and many more.
In every one of our meetings, black bears heightened my awareness (and sometimes my pulse rate), pulled me out of self and more firmly into the present moment, touched me with mystery. Like the Koyukon people, I believe that black bears (like their ursine relatives) carry a special power; each of our encounters has reminded me that to walk upon the Earth is to be engaged in a miracle. Bears, as much as any animal, bring that gift to me.
I'm not saying that all hunting of bears is wrong. But to kill them for ego alone, or out of fear, or spite, or because they're competitors, is to dishonor the animal. And, I think, it dishonors and diminishes ourselves.
Bill Sherwonit's newest book, Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey, will be published this summer by the University of Alaska Press.