ANCHORAGE - Alaska wildlife managers say they need help: A growing number of black bears are roaming the state, chowing down on too many caribou and moose and leaving too few for humans to eat.
So the state is poised for the first time to legalize the trapping of black bears.
Critics call the plan cruel: Bears are lured with buckets of raw meat and their paws are snared when they reach inside. Sometimes, bears end up chewing off a foot to get free.
"What is going to happen when the world looks at the barbaric management techniques that the state of Alaska has regressed to? We don't need that," said Wade Willis, an ex-wildlife worker-turned-agency watchdog.
Under the proposed regulations, any black bear, including sows and cubs, could be legally trapped.
The Alaska Board of Game, which sets hunting regulations, met Friday to begin debate and will likely delay a decision until next month to allow for public comment.
If approved, it would be the first time since statehood in 1959 that bears could be legally trapped by anyone with a license.
Maine is the only other state that allows bear trapping. About 75 black bears are trapped in the state each year, according to Alaska's Department of Fish and Game, which is pushing for the legalized trapping.
Fish and Game estimates there are about 100,000 black bears in Alaska. It has not said how many should be killed.
But officials say the snaring will help trim a growing force of the bears that are feasting on moose and caribou calves, and making a nuisance of themselves as they forage for food near fish camps in western Alaska.
Residents in the remote sections of the state can live hundreds of miles from the nearest grocery store, and end up having too few caribou and moose to harvest for food on their tables and meat for their freezers.
Officials are proposing to legalize trapping in six large, mostly interior areas.
The method being proposed is a bucket snare - usually a 5-gallon plastic bucket with a cable and locking device designed to catch a bear by the foot. The buckets would be mounted at least 36 inches off the ground and be anchored to a tree.
Trappers would be required to check the buckets at least every couple of days to see if a bear was snared and kill it.
Willis said bears sometimes go to great lengths to free themselves. "Not only will they chew their foot off but they can also easily maim themselves to the point that they are crippled," Willis said.
The proposal includes year-round trapping seasons, no bag limits, no limits on bucket snares and the killing of unsnared bears trying to protect snared bears. Trappers would be required to salvage either the hide or the meat.
"The department has spent a lot of time developing this proposal and we think it is a good idea," said Randy Zarnke, president of the 900-member Alaska Trappers Association.
Critics, however, say the snares could trap all sorts of animals, including grizzlies, moose and wolverine.
"It is an indiscriminate killer," Willis said.
Willis and some hunters also say the proposal could potentially endanger people who come upon a trapped bear, from those hiking in the backcountry to the trappers themselves.
While bucket snares are designed to catch black bears, which are smaller than grizzlies, they also are very good at catching young grizzlies still with their mothers, said Mark Richards, co-chair of the Alaska Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.
It "brings up real safety issues for the trapper returning to a snare site where a cub is caught and the mother still present, but it means the trapper would have to kill the mother, any other sibling cub not caught, and the cub in the snare," he said in an e-mail.
Richards said he's not against efforts to reduce wolf numbers but is against legalized bear trapping as proposed.
Under the state's aerial predator control program, which uses aircraft to locate predators, more than 1,000 wolves and nearly as many black bears have been killed.
But the agency says more bears need to be killed to support program goals of boosting moose and caribou numbers.