Hard-core hunters, animal lovers and the factions in between are at war this week in downtown Anchorage as the state board that decides Alaska's hunting rules returns to an ever-raging debate: predator control.
The Board of Game, which began work Friday, is meeting all week to decide on more than 240 proposals that would change where and how animals are hunted across Alaska.
The panel waded through hours of testimony Saturday, with speakers often pulling the board in opposite directions. Among the ideas:
* Allowing private hunters to use helicopters to land in hard-to-reach areas across Cook Inlet and trap black bears in snares.
* Boosting brown bear hunting in Chugach State Park -- at least partly to keep them from wandering into nearby Anchorage.
* Renewing some existing wolf-kill programs and creating new ones.
* Giving the state new predator control options in the future, such as shooting wolves from helicopters, or using poison gas in dens on orphaned pups too young to survive on their own.
Supporters say such proposals are crucial to managing hunting in the state, while critics see needless killing. Other ideas before the board -- such as bans on trapping wolverines in Chugach State Park and hunting brown bears in parts of the Katmai Preserve -- are just as controversial.
"It's not just meat on the table, it's not just a trophy on the wall," Kneeland Taylor, an Alaska Wildlife Alliance board member, told the Game Board. "There are lots and lots and lots of Alaskans who think of wildlife differently, who just like it being out there."
Taylor's group opposes plans to start snaring bears in an area across Cook Inlet that stretches west to the Skwentna River. It's been hard to get pictures of wolves being shot from planes, he told the seven-member board. "But we'll be able to get pictures, movies, of bears in snares. And they'll be on YouTube and millions of people will check that out."
Rod Arno is executive director of the Alaska Outdoor Council, a 10,000-member sportsmen's group. Those snares, and helicopter access to the area, are necessary to curb bear numbers and give moose a better chance of survival, he said.
"There's enough bears, even without the wolves now, to kill every single calf every year," he said.
Mark Richards, a trapper and co-chair of a group called Alaska Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, told the board Saturday that there's no way to set the snares without accidentally catching brown bears too.
Arno said that's why the state would experiment by allowing the snares in a small area and requiring hunters to check them every 24 hours.
The Game Board began hearing from the public on Friday.
The meeting is scheduled to continue through March 9. As of Saturday afternoon, more than 90 people had signed up to talk.
The Alaska chapter of Sportsmen for Habitat submitted one of the proposals that would allow black bear snares. The state chapter of its sister group, Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, was founded by former state Sen. Ralph Seekins.
At one point Saturday, as testimony continued inside, Seekins and Richards clashed outside the meeting room. The former Fairbanks lawmaker confronted Richards about an opinion piece Richards wrote in the Daily News last week, criticizing the state's ties to sport-hunting groups such as Seekins'. In the article, Richards said the group is trying to turn Alaska into a "game farm" nearly devoid of predators.
"What you said was absolutely wrong and you know it," Seekins told Richards as they stood before giant glass windows overlooking Fur Rondy revelers.
"Explain why I was wrong," Richards replied. Seekins said he'll to write something up himself.
As they argued, a small crowd gathered. Two men who had wandered into the convention center and had been asking people for change stopped to watch. Ten minutes later, everyone went their separate ways.
BOTH SIDES POINT TO SCIENCE
In the long-running predator control debate, each says science is on its side.
Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental group that recently taped a video blasting Gov. Sarah Palin about the state's aerial wolf hunts, says the state's predator control programs have spun recklessly out of control. The Alaska Outdoor Council -- the sportsmen's group whose former president was appointed to the Game Board by Palin -- say the hunts are working and ought to be expanded.
As the speakers made their cases, a series of signs saying "No on poison gas!" and "80 percent of Alaskans are not hunters" lay in the hallways. Hunters representing advisory councils from around the state methodically reviewed proposed tweaks and changes to the rules in their regions.
Doug Carney lives in the Kuskokwim River village of Sleetmute. The chairman of an area advisory council, he came to Anchorage to ask the board to renew a wolf-kill program that's aimed at boosting moose numbers, and said people who oppose the programs are "too far removed from their food supply."
"I don't hate wolves. Wolves are just land sharks -- they kill anything," he said.
Judy Armstrong of Anchorage told the board that killing predators kills the tourism industry. "It's not hunting, it's slaughter, OK? A lot of the time, the vast majority, there is no science to back up these measures ... it does not show that extreme predator control works."
In January, a dozen former Game Board members wrote Palin, calling for more diversity on the panel.
Asked whether the board is too sympathetic to sport-hunters, Arno said no. It doesn't make sense to appoint people representing, say, wildlife viewers to a board that regulates hunting rules, he said.
"It'd be like having a board of doctors and you had two of them that didn't believe in modern medicine," he said.
VARIETY OF CONCERNS
Others came to Anchorage representing smaller factions.
John W. Andrew is from the Kuskokwim village of Kwethluk, a Yup'ik community of 700 about 12 miles from Bethel. Moose hunting has been on hold in the region for the past five years and now it's time to start hunting again, he said.
Like many in Western Alaska, Andrew said the village saw a tough year of high heating fuel prices and a missed fuel barge.
"We're hoping that they give us a (moose) season out there, because our people are hurting out there," Andrew said.
Bill Sherwonit, an Anchorage nature writer, asked the state to reject any proposals that would expand brown bear hunting in Chugach State Park. While Fish and Game cites bear encounters in nearby Anchorage as cause for adding new hunts, there's no clear evidence the area's grizzly population is growing and no assurance the hunts will curb attacks, he said.
"Bear hunting in Chugach's wilderness will not resolve conflicts in Anchorage, and public safety issues in town should not be used as an excuse to enact bear hunts in the park," he said.
Ray Collins is chairman of the McGrath fish and game advisory committee. He said the area wolf control program is working but needs more time.
"With the air removal and the wolf control, we were able to increase calf survival dramatically," Collins said. He warned moose numbers still aren't where they need to be and that if the state axes the predator control program it would be tough to re-start.
Find Kyle Hopkins online at adn.com/contact/khopkins or call him at 257-4334.