Alaska officials expand aerial shooting of bears

In a new package of policies criticized even by some hunters, the Alaska Board of Game on Tuesday opened the door to aerial gunning of bears by state wildlife officials. It also debated a measure that would allow more widespread snaring of bears -- including grizzlies, which are officially considered threatened across most of the U.S.

The controversial “intensive management” moves are the latest in a series of increasingly aggressive control methods targeting bears and wolves in Alaska. In some areas, wolf pups can be gassed in their dens, bear cubs and sows can be hunted, and wolves shot from helicopters.

The board deferred until March the decision on whether to permit baiting and snaring of black bears and grizzlies in additional areas, a practice utilized for the last four years in a pilot project in central Alaska.

But it removed the historical blanket prohibition against aerial hunting of bears and specifically authorized state game agents to begin helicopter and fixed-wing hunting of bears along the Dalton Highway corridor in the high Arctic, where a precarious population of musk oxen has been threatened by predators.

“That potentially does open up that [aerial] method for other places as well -- to take bears with aerial shooting and land-and-shoot,” David James, Region 3 supervisor for the state Department of Fish and Game’s Division of Wildlife Conservation, said in an interview. “It would no longer be illegal to do that anywhere else in the state.”


The measures are designed to appease long-standing concerns among a broad swath of Alaskans about declining populations of moose and caribou, upon which much of rural Alaska depends for food.

The National Park Service is arguing forcefully -- and so far unsuccessfully -- that techniques such as snaring, baiting, trapping and using artificial lights to hunt down bears in their dens should not be used on bears and wolves in the 19 million acres of federal wildlife refuges in Alaska.

“In this larger war on bears and wolves, the Board of Game has created a number of hunting methods which we find objectionable,” said Jim Stratton, Alaska director for the National Parks Conservation Assn. “It’s all being done to manipulate the population of predators, to reduce them so you can grow more moose and caribou, and that is in direct conflict with how the park service is supposed to manage their land. They have a management policy which specifically says you don’t manipulate the population of one species to benefit the hunting of another.”

Opponents have also raised humanitarian concerns, arguing that methods such as snaring often leave bears to writhe in distress for long periods before they are finally shot.

“I personally disagree with the snaring of the bear,” said Terry Holliday, president of the state chapter of Safari Club International, one of Alaska’s premier hunting organizations -- though he said he supported reducing predators to boost game populations.

“If they want a lower bear population, they can do it in different ways,” he said. “It’s not humane. You shoot something, you kill it. If it’s properly done, it’s bang, and it’s over, with the animal not suffering. But when you go out and you start snaring animals and ... say, the weather’s bad and you can’t get back for several days, here’s a bear sitting there in a snare with a bucket on its foot.”

Critics of the new measures say they’re in conflict with the wildlife management advice of most scientists. Over-hunting by humans, including that by trophy hunters from outside Alaska, is responsible for much of the decline in moose and caribou, they contend.

But in some ways, the Department of Fish and Game has its hands tied. The Alaska Legislature in 1994 passed an unusual law directing state officials to adopt an “intensive management” policy across crucial parts of the state. The policy was aimed at maximizing the production of human food species -- if necessary, at the expense of bears, wolves and other predators.

The state’s last three administrations, all Republican, have enthusiastically implemented the directive. The Board of Game, appointed by the governor and dominated by hunting advocates, has increased the options available to target predators. Many were pushed by Corey Rossi, a friend of former Gov. Sarah Palin’s family who resigned last week as state conservation director. He faces criminal charges that he filed false state reports in connection with a 2008 black bear hunt.