ANCHORAGE - A move by the state Department of Fish and Game to legalize the snaring and trapping of bears for the first time since statehood has a conservation group and a watchdog agency accusing Alaska's game board and other state officials of trying to silence the public on important wildlife management issues.
But the head of Alaska's largest sportsmen's group said Friday the agency's proposal to allow bear trapping is an attempt to give the public more hunting opportunities while building on the state's aerial predator control program in which wolves and bears are killed to boost moose and caribou numbers.
"I think it is all in the same direction in trying to do proactive predator and prey management," said Rod Arno, executive director of the Alaska Outdoor Council, when asked about agenda items added to a special meeting beginning next week in Anchorage. The meeting will be open to the public.
The Alaska Board of Game is expected to vote on a Fish and Game proposal setting trapping seasons for black bears in half a dozen large areas. If passed, bear trapping and snaring by the public would effectively become legal for the first time in Alaska's history. The board quietly took the first step toward legalization - reclassifying bears as furbearers - in January.
"This change will legalize public trapping of black bears in areas where the board establishes bear trapping seasons," said Fish and Game Deputy Commissioner Pat Valkenburg.
While the plan targets black bears, some brown bears, also known as grizzlies, are expected to be trapped incidentally. Under the proposal, trapping may be closed by emergency order when unspecified numbers are reached.
Another proposal would extend the brown bear season on the eastern North Slope to help boost declining muskox numbers there.
Also on the agenda is reauthorizing the shooting of wolves from airplanes under the state's aerial predator control program near Glennallen. The program is operating in about a half-dozen areas of the state.
In addition, the game board will discuss new policies that could set for years the direction the state takes when managing Alaska's wolf and bear populations.
State officials declined to be interviewed and instead provided comments in e-mails to The Associated Press. They said they met meeting notification requirements and have given the public adequate time to weigh in.
Fish and Game watchdog Wade Willis, a former agency employee, said special meetings are called for "unanticipated" events. This special meeting was scheduled to deal with legal problems that arose this summer with the Nelchina caribou herd community hunt. But five proposals were added to the agenda, Willis said, and none of them were unanticipated.
When the other items were added instead of being heard in a regularly scheduled meeting, the public was denied a fair opportunity to participate, Willis said. That's because the public won't be able to offer its own proposals on the added items, he said.
"The effect was they didn't even inform the public that these topics were going to be included in the call for proposals," he said. "They disenfranchised the public."
The process was "highly irregular and impedes the effectiveness of the public to participate," added Theresa Fiorino, Defenders of Wildlife's Alaska representative.
But Arno said putting the new items on the special meeting's agenda instead of discussing them at Ketchikan's regularly scheduled game board meeting in November made sense because they are of more interest to people in south-central Alaska.
Kristy Tibbles, game board executive director, said Fish and Game officials asked the board at a March meeting to propose trapping seasons. She said the board planned the items for the special meeting "to provide better access for the public to attend the meeting and provide oral and written comment."
The proposed changes have been posted on the agency's website since the second week of September and therefore satisfy a 30-day posting requirement, said Fish and Game spokeswoman Jennifer Yuhas.
The public had until Sept. 30 to submit written comments for inclusion in the board workbook. Comments received after that will be provided to board members at the meeting.
Willis said he and Arno were the only people left at the January meeting when Valkenburg suggested reclassifying black bears as furbearers to allow trapping. There was no public notification, no written proposal for the public to refer to, and no time for public comment, Willis said.
But state lawyer Kevin Saxby said the proposed policies on bears and wolves are not proposals for regulatory change and therefore require no public notice or comment.
"That the department is giving the public an opportunity to comment shows its commitment to the public process, even when it is not required," he said.