FAIRBANKS - The Alaska Board of Game has adopted a statewide policy allowing everything from trapping and sterilization to baiting and land-and-shoot hunting of black and brown bears in areas deemed necessary.
"It's not a war on bears," Fairbanks board member Sharon McLeod-Everette said Monday. "It gives us a tool to handle bear predation the same way we're handling wolf predation."
The state recently initiated aerial wolf hunts in McGrath and the Nelchina Basin as part of wolf-control programs to boost dwindling moose herds. Now it is eyeing bears after recent studies showed the animals play an important predatory role in Alaska.
Nearing the end of a two-week meeting in Fairbanks, the game board is considering changes to hunting and trapping regulations around the state and many of the changes center on declining moose and caribou populations because of increased predation by wolves and bears. The meeting wraps up Wednesday.
Dozens of people testified at the start of the session, urging the board to implement predator control programs in their areas.
How soon the state will begin any type of bear-control program is unclear. The game board has not named any specific areas and must develop an agenda for doing so, said Kim Titus, deputy director for the state's game division.
"It took a number of years to get where we are with wolves," Titus noted. "I would not expect the issue of bears to just happen. It's not going to happen without public debate."
The state's current and past wolf-control activities have spurred national tourism boycotts by animal-rights activists. Officials expect the possibility of bear control also will stir public debate.
"Nowhere in the U.S. is there any program associated with control of brown or grizzly bears," Titus said. "It's a new arena."
Under the policy adopted unanimously by the seven-member board on Monday, bear-control programs will be considered only in areas that are designated for intensive management. State law mandates game populations in those areas to be managed for human consumption.
"This is to cure a problem," said hunting guide McLeod-Everette. "I think over time people will understand this isn't meant to wipe out everything and be used everywhere."
Paul Joslin with the Alaska Wildlife Alliance called the policy "major manipulation" of a wildlife species to satisfy humans. Joslin, a wildlife biologist, said more studies need to be done before any kind of bear control begins.
"We don't have a handle on the numbers," he said. "Bears are such slow breeders that if you make a mistake, it may take years to recover."