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Alaska editorial: Taking a closer look at the bear hunt issue

Posted: Thursday, April 19, 2007

This editorial appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

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Headlines that focus on numbers and killing are understandable when it comes to a no bag limit bear hunt in Alaska, but Alaskans should know to take a closer look when they see such stories.

Reports of the liberalized black bear season in a Southcentral game management unit last week generated exciting headlines, but missed the point for Alaska readers.

The stories now traveling at hyper-speed across Internet communities would have a person believe a black bear hunt near Alaska's largest population center has been opened to unlimited killing of sows and cubs in a move to focus predator control on bears where, previously, the state has focused on wolves.

That's not quite accurate.

Game Management Unit 16 is only "near" Anchorage in that it is across Cook Inlet from the city and across the Susitna River from Palmer. It has virtually no road access. Alaskans also know this is not easy country to traverse once it's reached by riverboat or float plane. They also know that, for many years, bears have been recognized as a huge piece of the predator control picture and a focus on bears is not new. Alaskans also know that just because the rules say you can shoot more game, that doesn't mean you'll actually see more game.

The focus of the story should be that Alaska's Board of Game and state game managers are feeling such pressure to do something about reduced game populations, but have so few options, that they seem more and more willing to stick their necks out politically for programs that hold only a marginal chance of success.

The difficulty, and unpopularity, of these decisions dates back decades but programs debated years ago held promise for greater results.

Wolf control has always been unpopular but the older programs were more sure-fired with biologists gunning from helicopters. The land-and-shoot hunting we now call predator control was simply another method of legal hunting that a select few could afford to practice.

Predation by bears has been addressed by liberalizing bear hunting seasons, including grizzly bear seasons, and by trapping and relocating black bears in an experimental program carried out near McGrath. The state also studied the idea of stockpiling winter road-killed moose to dump near spring calving grounds to distract bears.

The state seems even more desperate now. Two years ago the board approved bear baiting for grizzly bears in remote areas north of Tok. It was a first, and even some hunters were dismayed when the sometimes despised practice of baiting was linked with grizzly hunting on the Last Frontier. Ultimately the effort was a bust with no appreciable difference in the number of bears killed compared to other years.

Now we're on to Unit 16 where, if you're not on a boat you're knee-deep in a marsh or wishing you had a macheté to hack through the spruce forest and underbrush.

The bottom line is there are a lot of other areas for hunters to enjoy a higher chance of success at black bear hunting at much lower cost and less physical risk than in Unit 16. The odds of having a chance to shoot more than three black bears in one season are extremely low and not many hunters would even want to kill that many, or kill a sow with cubs.

But the Game Board was responding to what have been repeated annual requests for something to be done in the area that used to feed many Alaskans. The moose population is a quarter to a third of what it once was in Unit 16, and that is easily attributed to predation, according to Fish and Game area biologist Tony Kavalok in Palmer. Wolf control will help, but black bears have a huge impact.

What's important for Alaskans to know is that the moose population in yet another area of our state that used to feed a lot of people is now down to a point where citizens are willing to try desperate measures to see it come back. It shouldn't have been allowed to decline in the first place.



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