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Help the McNeil Bear Sanctuary off linmits to hunting

Game Board Faces Issue of Predator Control

Divide: Proposals draw both support and condemnation

Craig Medred / Anchorage Daily News / February 21, 2009

Wolves and bears will be in the cross hairs when the Alaska Board of Game next week begins another contentious discussion of how to manage predators in the 49th state.

For some, that is a good thing; for others, it is very bad.

The view seems determined in large part by which side of Alaska's rural-urban divide they call home.

From villages and small communities in the Aleutian Islands east along the south side of the Alaska Range all the way to Cordova come proposals to kill wolves and bears or both to eliminate competition for the moose and caribou, or -- in some cases -- for simple public safety.

When the board sits Friday to start work on a 3/4 -inch-thick packet of proposals, it will be considering not only the usual array of seasons and bag limits for hunting and trapping, but a whole bunch of proposals for new predator-control zones requested primarily by Bush residents.

Out in tiny Nelson Lagoon, a community of fewer than 100 near the start of the Aleutian Chain, the local advisory committee to the state summed up the thinking of many rural residents in just a few sentences:

"Over abundance of nuisance and problem bears in local communities. More old bears. Bear danger increased for locals; less meat animals for local subsistence hunters."

These are not views universally held by urban Alaskans, even less so by the masses of Americans who live Outside and look north longingly at the last, great American wilderness.

Earlier this month, the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife began a preemptive strike against new Alaska predator control programs. The organization attacked high-visibility Gov. Sarah Palin for supporting wolf control programs already in place. Defenders' high-profile spokeswoman, actress Ashley Judd, decried Alaska's intensive management that aims to increase moose and caribou numbers by reducing predation.

Judd zoomed in on the aerial hunting of wolves, which she called "senseless savagery."
Palin dismissed the accusations as nothing but a fundraising scheme. Defenders' Alaska representative Wade Wilson on Friday called that "crap."
Wilson said his organization is trying to bring some reason to wildlife management in Alaska. He noted that a fair number of biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game have criticized the intensive management program over the years.

It is simplistic, he added, to blame wolves or bears, or both, for all fluctuations in wildlife populations when a variety of other factors can be at play. Weather, food availability, hunting and poaching all affect moose, caribou and Dall sheep numbers in Alaska, but, Wilson said, "everyone just wants to blame the boogeyman, the wolf."

Wilson lives in Anchorage. Myra Olson, chair of the Lower Bristol Bay Advisory Committee to Fish and Game, is a resident of Egegik. She has lived for almost 40 years in the community of about 120 on the south shore of Bristol Bay. And she sees things a lot differently than Wilson does. Olson said she remembers when moose and caribou were plentiful in the area, but they are scarce now.

"I will tell you, in the last four or five years, we have wolves right in the village at night," she said. "No hunting is allowed at all for caribou for the last three or four years."

Despite the lack of human harvest -- which used to provide vital food to local residents -- the herd has not grown, she added. And moose, for which a limited hunt is restricted to a handful of local residents, aren't doing much better.

"Moose come right into the village to have their calves now to try to stay away from the wolves," she said.

And then there are the grizzly bears.

"Years ago," Olson said, "we used to start seeing bears in the summertime, at the end of July, and they'd be gone in a month. Now we have bears in people's yards from April to November."

When people venture out of their homes, she said, they have to remember to look both ways to keep from running into bears.

All along the coast on the south side of Bristol Bay, she added, it is much the same.

"In some communities, people would have to take their kids to school, and they could see wolves out on the flats," she said.

Olson said she's tired of seeing so many wolves and bears. Neither does she like them eating most of the moose and caribou.

"We want our caribou back," she said.

Others see the same situation differently. Values get all crossed up here, depending not only on where people live but on how they view wildlife.

Peg Tileston of Anchorage is a longtime Alaska environmentalist. She was supporting the creation of new parks and refuges in the state back in the 1970s when it was borderline dangerous to advocate for what was then called a "lockup" of Alaska lands.

She and her husband, Jules, have a proposal before the board to close grizzly bear hunting in the Funnel, Moraine and Battle creek drainages of Game Management Unit 9, east of where Olson lives in the same unit. The Tilestons are unhappy because they don't see enough bears when they vacation there now.

"We have been watching and photographing brown bears in this area during the same period since 1999," they write. "The first year we saw more than 40 bears in an eight-hour period. These were a mixture of females, sows with cubs, juveniles, and big boars. In subsequent years, we have seen fewer and fewer bears, particularly cubs and big boars. The summer of 2004, we saw approximately fifteen bears during a twelve hour period and had to walk a wide area to spot them. When we first started our trips to this area, the average number of bears taken (by hunters) was seven to eight per season. This level of harvest of brown bears per season reflects the historical take for this area long before the Katmai National Preserve was established. According to Alaska Department of Fish and Game harvest data for the 2003-04 season, 34 bears (27 males and 7 females) were taken in this area."

The Tilestons think too many bears are being killed in the area both by trophy hunters from Outside and subsistence hunters from the Lake Iliamna area. They are joined by the National Parks Conservation Association, which wants state intensive management efforts moved out of not only Katmai but all preserves.

Guides who lead photo safaris for bears there and elsewhere in the Katmai area agree. Hunters, and some fishing guides tired of fighting their way through bears on float trips down the creeks, disagree.

Sometimes more than just attitudes are at play, said Fish and Game spokesman Bruce Bartley; sometimes economics enter the picture too. Hunting guides have one economic interest, he noted; photography guides have another.

"I'm not sure this is strictly an urban-rural thing," he added. "It's certainly not a new thing. It's been around for all my 20 years" at Fish and Game.

Nobody expects the debate to end anytime soon, either. Wilson figures the board meeting that starts Friday at the Dena'ina Civic & Convention Center in Anchorage will draw plenty of angry people from both sides of the issue. Some of them are certain to go away unhappy. Olson said she and the people from her remote corner of Alaska fear they will be among them.

"Half of the country out here is federal," she said. "So we have to have some sort of marriage between the federal and state, maybe some type of cooperative agreement.''

Getting state and federal officials to agree on things isn't easy in the best of circumstances, she said. It might be impossible with controversy brewing. Because of this, she admits she doesn't much like groups like Defenders.

"My personal feeling is people's paychecks depend on the keeping the wolf issue in front of people,'' she said "It's a great fundraising tool for them."

Find Craig Medred online at adn.com/contact/cmedred or call 257-4588.

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