After sitting through way too many hours of Alaska Board of Game deliberations in recent days, I'm hard pressed to say what disturbs me most about the events that transpired in Anchorage's Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center. Which is most awful, I wonder: that the Board is intensifying its still-young war on black bears across Cook Inlet from Anchorage? That it continues to expand its predator-control "toolbox" and targeted areas, with no end in sight? That the state is now inviting youngsters to join its predator-control efforts? Or that Alaska's media and mainstream conservation groups have largely ignored all of this?
To those who might criticize my characterization of black-bear control in Game Management Unit 16B as a "war," consider the following.
The Board of Game and Department of Fish and Game aim - or at least hope - to kill up to 60 percent of the 2,500 to 3,000 black bears that, in their opinion, prey upon an unacceptably high number of moose calves in Unit 16B, a huge area that extends from the foothills of the Alaska Range to Cook Inlet and from the Yentna River southwest to Redoubt Creek (which flows off the rumbling Redoubt Volcano).
Sixty percent! If that's not a slaughter, what is? (The state admits it is unlikely to reach that goal, but why not shoot for the moon, eh?)
In discussing the unprecedented use of snares to catch and then kill black bears, Board member Ted Spraker talked about the inevitable "collateral damage," in this instance involving brown bears. It is, of course, a term he borrowed from the military.
And Ben Grussendorf, the most moderate member of the Board (which isn't saying much), described his initial gut reaction to several proposed changes this way: "Man, this is a jihad against black bears by paramilitary groups."
Welcome, once again, to wildlife management under Gov. Sarah Palin, where everything possible is being done to kill off the predators that compete with Alaska's human hunters for moose and caribou. No matter that many, perhaps most, of these people live in urban areas and participate in "sport" hunts.
In fact many of the ones most interested in Unit 16 moose live in Palin country, the Mat-Su Valleys. These folks - and lots of Anchorage-area hunters, too - simply want to fill their freezers with wild game and by God the Palin administration is going to do everything it can to help 'em out, short of controlling the weather. (Department staff did point out that harsh winter weather sometimes waylays the best efforts to boost ungulate numbers, predator control notwithstanding, but maybe global warming will help in that regard.)
OK, to be fair the state isn't doing everything it could to kill predators. Not yet. The state isn't quite ready to try poisoned bait. And bounties still appear to be a no-no. But it is getting ready to use carbon-monoxide gas to kill wolf pups in dens, at least in some control areas. And it is prepared to bait, snare and shoot Unit 16B black bears plus the occasional grizzly - untargeted, mind you - that happens to step into a snare. No need to worry about that collateral damage, though, because as Spraker rightly points out, grizzlies kill lots of moose calves too. Snaring a few of them accidentally and having to put 'em down wouldn't be such a bad thing, really.
As if that isn't bad enough, the Board decided in Monday's meeting to allow the snaring and killing of both black bears and grizzlies in the McGrath control area. Apparently not even grizzlies maintain the "untouchable" status they once enjoyed in Alaska's predator-control programs.
To calm public opinion - though I'm not sure that more than a few dozen of us are paying any attention - the Board brought in a couple of experts to assure everyone that both the gassing of wolf pups and the snaring of bears are absolutely humane ways of killing those critters. No worries there.
Because this snaring program is an experiment with lots of uncertainties attached to it, BOG members initially questioned whether the public should be involved. At least a few seemed to feel it should be a department operation, period. Most minds changed, however, when the department implied it couldn't afford to do the snaring without public help.
Saturday's major concerns - including some expressed by the Department of Public Safety - seemed to miraculously dissolve by the time the Board voted overwhelmingly, on Sunday, to approve the experimental snaring of black bears and the use of helicopter transport to bait and snaring stations in Unit 16, by both department staff and public participants who get permits to join the fun. (Grussendorf was the lone dissenter.)
The Board also voted to greatly lengthen Unit 16's bear-baiting season, from April 15 to Oct. 15. All of this should help the state more closely approach its annual goal of 1,000 dead black bears there, or double that of the fall 2007-spring 2008 campaign.
It appeared that most Board member anxieties were eased by the soft and smooth-talking Corey Rossi, appointed this winter to the state's newly established position of "assistant commissioner for abundance management." Rossi's job roughly translates into this: make sure there are way more ungulates (especially moose and caribou) for hunters to kill and way fewer wolves and bears to compete with us humans. To join the Department of Fish and Game, Rossi left the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where, in one critic's words, he served as a "gopher choker," though it might be more accurate to call him a "pigeon plucker," since he helped to rid Anchorage of troublesome pigeons and other nuisance birds. Now he gets to rid Alaska of larger undesirables, wolves and bears.
To better understand where Rossi's coming from, consider his comment that one benefit of the public's increasing participation in Unit 16's bear-kill program is that it "encourages an attitude of stewardship."
Every time a Board member expressed concern about Fish and Game intents, Rossi would more or less humbly respond, "of course we'll defer to the Board's wishes" no matter how much the strain on Fish and Game's budget and already overworked personnel. But in the end, it sure seemed he got everything he wanted.
Not everyone in the department is happy with Rossi's approach or the way he got the job. Rossi is a good friend of the Palins and our governor pushed hard to get him into Fish and Game, whatever the staff's objections. Already he's gone back and forth on how this new bear-control effort will be run and has upset some folks by backtracking on assurances made to staff, for instance that only bucket snares, not ground snares (which increase the odds of catching grizzlies) would be used; now both are in play. Or that only department staff would be involved in the snaring.
One of Rossi's favorite responses, when asked by the Board for more details, was "we'll work that out as we go along," which doesn't instill a lot of faith in the process, but nobody on the Board seemed especially bothered by it.
There's plenty of other upsetting stuff that happened at the meeting, at least to one who prefers that more than a token few bears and wolves roam state-managed lands, but I'd like to point out one in particular: the Board's decision to allow children 10 to 15 years old to participate in Unit 16's bear-kill program, except for snaring.
Bob Bell, to my surprise and his credit, opposed the idea: "Bringing kids into the hunting fraternity under predator control is a bad idea."
But Spraker, who's taught hunter-education, found great merit in the idea of having kids kill bears over bait, no matter if some of those bears happen to be moms with tiny cubs. Or even the cubs themselves. "I think it could be exciting for a 10-year-old," he said.
Area biologist Tony Kavalok suggested that kids' participation in 16B's bear-kill program could help them better understand the role that predator control has in Alaska's wildlife management.
To which I would add, it would also show them that some species deserve less respect than others. Black bears? Just about anything goes for them. They're not as valuable as grizzlies and especially not as important as moose. In fact they're a nuisance to have around, if you're a moose hunter.
Rossi no doubt would argue that youngsters' participation will make them better stewards of Alaska's wildlife. But I think these control freaks simply want to introduce a whole new generation to the joys and merits of killing bears and wolves so they get more moose steak and stew. Spraker in fact noted, "Down the road they'll be able to say, I was part of this successful effort" to protect moose from bears and save 'em for people to hunt.
In the end, the Board voted 4-2 to let boys and girls 10 to 15 join older hunters in the black bear kill, with Grussendorf and Bell opposed, but only if supervised and after completing some sort of hunter-education course and obtaining predator-control orientation materials that, I presume, will help them understand the difference between killing bears over slop buckets of bait for sport vs. doing it for the sake of the moose.
I think the kids will also really enjoy the helicopter rides to and from the bear-hunting camps. Pretty cool, that.
What bothers me nearly as much as all of these shenanigans is the fact that Alaska's media - including its "No. 1 News Team" (isn't that what KTUU proclaims?) and "Alaska's Newspaper," the Anchorage Daily News - missed so much of the Board of Game's deliberations. Yeah, they got some sound bites and a couple stories of local interest. And, to its credit, the Daily News did a predator-control "recap" on Monday. But that's about it. And a lot is missed by briefly popping in and out.
The implications of the local media's disinterest are worrisome. It suggests that Alaska's predator control program, which has continued to grow and prosper under Frank Murkowski and now Sarah Palin, has become business as usual. If most of what the Board of Game did in Anchorage this month isn't newsworthy, Alaska's bears and wolves are in big trouble, at least those that inhabit state lands.
Which leads me to once more say "Thank-you, God" for Jimmy Carter and the Alaska Lands Act (can that be the same God Sarah Palin gives thanks to?). They have guaranteed that much of Alaska is protected by federal statutes that make wildlife diversity and healthy populations of all species a priority.
I also remain discouraged that, with few exceptions, Alaska's conservation groups remain out of the picture. I suppose that with global warming, oil and gas industry activities, clean-energy initiatives and other big-picture items, their plates are pretty full and perhaps overflowing. But this new push for "abundance management" - the latest buzzwords for intensive management and predator control - is way out of control.
Only a few greenie organizations even commented on the proposals considered at this meeting. Even fewer sent people to testify; and most of them quickly vanished afterward.
For much of the last weekend, I sat in the Dena'ina Center surrounded by big-game hunting guides, trappers and hunters, state wildlife managers, and Board of Game members and their support staff. At most a handful of us opposed to the state's current wildlife-management regime bore witness to the machinations, and only one of those few represented a conservation group, Wade Willis of Defenders of Wildlife.
I know firsthand that sitting through these meetings can be a boring, frustrating, and disheartening experience, especially if you care about more than moose and caribou and sheep, or increased opportunities to kill wild creatures. I know too that most of my friends and greenie acquaintances just don't have my passion, or stomach, for this stuff. But as fewer and fewer Alaskans pay attention to what they're doing, the abundance-management and predator-control extremists are rightfully gaining confidence that they can do pretty much whatever they damn well please.
Believe me, the state's "control" of wolves and bears is indeed getting ever more extreme. Maybe that's not a problem, if only its advocates are the ones who care. But at least a few of us will keep watching and listening and ranting now and then. And maybe some day that will again make a difference.
©2009 by Bill Sherwonit
In addition to his other nature writing passions, Bill Sherwonit writes frequently about wildlife management and politics in Alaska. His most recent book is Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey, published by the University of Alaska Press.