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Game Board Considers Predator Control Plan

INTERIOR: Grizzlies and wolves targeted to aid moose and caribou hunters

Joel Gay / Anchorage Daily News / November 2, 2004

More than two dozen grizzly bears and 300 wolves could be killed in a wide swath of the eastern Interior if the Alaska Board of Game approves a proposal aimed at creating more moose for hunters.

The board meets today through Friday in Juneau.

The wolf kill program for game units 12 and 20E, which extend north and south from Tok, would likely mirror others approved by the Game Board in recent years, relying on private pilots to shoot the animals from the air or shortly after landing.

But this could be the first time the board exercises new authority to kill brown or grizzly bears, which studies have shown can be substantial predators of moose and caribou calves. The board could approve methods that are currently illegal for brown bear hunters, including trapping, baiting, killing sows and cubs, or allowing pilots to spot bears from the air, then land and shoot.

Game managers are prepared for a public outcry if the Game Board does target grizzlies, said Matt Robus, wildlife director for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The response was lively when lethal wolf control resumed, Robus said. "Bringing grizzly bears into the equation is a whole new, extremely controversial issue."

Predator control -- killing predators to allow game populations to flourish -- has blossomed since Gov. Frank Murkowski was elected in 2002. He stocked the Game Board with advocates of predator control. He also let stand a controversial bill sponsored by Sen. Ralph Seekins, R-Fairbanks, that allows private pilots to shoot wolves from the air or shortly after landing if they are participating in state-sponsored predator control.

Last winter, pilots around McGrath and in the Nelchina Basin northeast of Anchorage killed 144 wolves. This winter, the take could range from 350 to 500 as the program expands to include additional areas on the Kuskokwim River and the Skwentna River west of Anchorage.

In Juneau this week, the Game Board will consider extending predator control to two additional game management areas covering nearly 21,000 square miles in the upper Yukon/Tanana drainage.

In recent years, hunters in units 12 and 20E have shot 275 moose a season, far short of the state's harvest goal of 750 to 1,450 animals.

The region has adequate vegetation to support more moose, state biologists say, but bears and wolves prevent the stock from growing. A 1984 study found wolves killed 12 percent to 15 percent of moose calves, while grizzly bears killed 52 percent.

If the Game Board approves predator control, it will determine how many of the areas' estimated 425-450 wolves and 825-975 grizzly bears will be killed, and what means are used.

Bear control would be new ground for the board, and Fish and Game is suggesting a conservative approach because brown bears reproduce slowly, said Robus. The board created a statewide predator control plan for bears last spring that allows for trapping and killing sows and cubs. But for the program being discussed this week, biologists propose to allow only bear baiting and land-and-shoot hunting.

The program would likely be limited to calving areas, where the estimated bear population is about 80. In a draft plan, Fish and Game proposes killing fewer than 30 of them.

Biologists suggest leaving at least 110 wolves in the two areas, which could mean a harvest of more than 300. The board could allow aerial or land-and-shoot methods.

Board chairman Mike Fleagle said he expects the board will approve some type of predator control, but he wouldn't speculate on the final program.

"It looks like we'll start at a small level and not just go too broad right off the bat," he said.

Whatever program is approved will not extend onto federal lands in the two areas, which include all or portions of Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve and Yukon-Charley National Preserve, Robus said.

But that could change in the future, he added. The board last spring announced its intention to work with federal agencies to extend state predator control efforts off state lands.

Also this week, the board will decide whether to allow hunters around Juneau to bait black bears. Fish and Game biologists oppose the idea, saying hunters don't need to leave out pastries and other aromatic foods to find bears every spring. They also note that baiting would conflict with educational efforts to address the problem of garbage bears in Juneau.

In the run-up to today's election on Ballot Measure 3, which would ban bear baiting, the state has suggested just the opposite, that areas where bear baiting is commonly practiced have the lowest incidence of nuisance bear complaints.

Daily News reporter Joel Gay can be reached at jgay@adn.com or at 257-4310

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