ANCHORAGE - Hunters this summer will be allowed to kill as many black bears as they want in an area near Anchorage in an expansion of Alaska's predator control program, aimed mostly at wolves until now.
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In a move approved by the Alaska Board of Game in March, state wildlife managers are targeting an 11,000-square-mile area known as Game Unit 16 across Cook Inlet from Anchorage. Hunters in the game unit currently are allowed three black bears per year.
While program managers are working out details, such as if hunters will be allowed to use helicopters as well as airplanes, there are few restrictions. The program begins July 1.
Hunters will be allowed to use guns, bows and arrows and bait. They can kill boars, sows, even sows with cubs. Permits are free.
"It is pretty wide open," Bruce Bartley, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said Tuesday. "Clearly, they want to reduce bear numbers in a big way."
The original proposal included grizzly bears but the board decided not to go in that direction, Bartley said, in part because the reproduction rate for grizzlies is lower than black bears. There also are more black bears in the game unit, he said.
Residents in the remote towns and villages across Cook Inlet from Alaska's largest city have complained for years to state game managers that bears and wolves are killing too many moose calves, leaving them with too few to hunt for food, Bartley said.
Black bears likely would be targeted for a minimum of three years, or until state game managers can determine if the program is having the desired effect of boosting moose numbers, Bartley said.
In recent years, permits for moose in the game unit have been restricted to people who can prove they have hunted there previously. Bartley said 360 permits for moose were issued for 2006-2007 with more than twice that number of hunters applying. Some of the hunters fly into the game unit. Others travel by river.
The state estimates there are as many as 2,000 black bears in the game unit, a number that some organizations believe is unreliable and likely inflated. Game managers have set a goal of removing 900 to 1,400 black bears.
Dave Lyon, co-chairman of Alaska Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a pro-hunting and fishing group of nearly 100 members, said the state's black bear numbers for the area are questionable. The range is big and the percentage allowed for error too large, he said.
"It is bad science," Lyon said. "We are not going to support predator control done with bad science."
Game board chairman Cliff Judkins did not immediately return a call for comment.
Tom Banks, Alaska associate for Defenders of Wildlife, a group fighting the state's predator control program in the courts, said the black bear numbers are a lot like the wolf numbers the state uses to justify the program.
"It is the same as we've been seeing regarding the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's counts of wolves, that the counts are unreliable and overestimated," Banks said.
The predator control program is operating in five areas of Alaska. The program objective for this year is to remove between 407 and 680 wolves. The numbers include those trapped legally.
The state predator control program over the winter for much of Unit 16 called for 79 wolves to be killed by April 30. So far, 32 wolves have been killed under the aerial predator control program. Another 20 likely will be trapped, Bartley said.
Lyon said the game board's decision on black bears sends a bad message to the majority of Alaskans who do not hunt.
"The statement it makes is that we really don't care how the non-hunting public perceives us," Lyon said.
The state estimates there are more than 100,000 black bears in Alaska.