Tuesday, June 25, 2024

By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block

Under the guise of conservation, Alaska wildlife officials have recently killed 175 grizzly bears, including at least 20 cubs, as well as 19 wolves and five black bears. The method of choice has largely been to shoot them from helicopters and airplanes.

These killings took place during the past two springs, when bears are coming out of hibernation with their cubs, as part of Alaska’s “intensive management” of wildlife. This program attempts to artificially grow the numbers of animals for hunters to shoot—in this case, the Mulchatna caribou herd living in southwest Alaska.

Keep grizzly bears protected >>

Starting in 2012, Alaska officials allowed the public to gun down wolves from aircraft with the aim of helping to grow this caribou herd. But when the herd still showed no increase in size, officials decided to also target grizzlies, also known as brown bears, and black bears themselves. This is nothing more than a scapegoat scheme, and the result has been an unconscionable toll on native carnivore populations for no justifiable reason whatsoever.

The killing of native bears and wolves ignores the reality that the Mulchatna herd faces: a degraded, overgrazed and fragile habitat further imperiled by climate change. The herd is also plagued by disease (brucellosis) and rampant poaching. No amount of predator control will restore the herd’s size to its one-time, record level.

What is clear is that Alaska’s wildlife management is not based on science. Ecosystems are extremely complex, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has had no method or study in place to analyze the results of all its predator killing. Even if the Mulchatna caribou herd population were to suddenly increase, there would be no way to know why. Alaska officials forge ahead spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on an approach to wildlife management that has about as much sophistication and nuance as whack-a-mole.

Indeed, dozens of biologists have decried the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s attempts to grow the Mulchatna herd, writing in an op-ed last summer: “We know that caribou herds naturally go through significant fluctuations over time and that it can take many decades for forage resources to recover from overuse during population peaks.” In other words, that herd’s one-time peak of 200,000 caribou should not be taken as an ideal, because the caribou’s fragile Arctic habitat will take decades to recover from overgrazing by this once-massive herd.

Alaska’s fumbling approach shows why it is essential for grizzly bears to have federal protections under the Endangered Species Act, both there and across the U.S. For now, in the lower 48 states, grizzly bears are federally protected. But some members of Congress and Western governors want to eliminate these federal protections and open trophy hunting seasons on bears who live in the Northern Rocky Mountains. This puts the fewer than 2,000 bears who live in the Greater Yellowstone (Yellowstone National Park) and Northern Continental Divide (Glacier National Park) ecosystems at risk. Earlier this month, we submitted substantive comments opposing the delisting of these grizzly bear populations, along with the support of nearly 100,000 of our members and supporters who signed letters to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Despite their gross mismanagement, Alaska’s wildlife operations benefit from federal funding. Under the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, also known as the Pittman-Robertson Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gives states federal wildlife conservation monies that are intended to support wildlife restoration, conservation and hunter education and safety programs. A document we obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request shows that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game received more than $465,000 in support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for “wildlife restoration.” A state official claims that the department did not use this particular federal funding to kill grizzlies, wolves and black bears. Still, it is concerning that another document on the federal grant we obtained through FOIA notes that despite findings that notable challenges to the herd include starvation, illegal hunting and disease, the Alaska Board of Game still directed the state to destroy brown bears, black bears and wolves. And it is extremely disheartening that a state agency with such careless and extreme wildlife management methods received so much federal support. Not only have indigenous community members, biologists and wildlife advocates have raised concerns that funds like these can be misappropriated to conduct controversial predator control programs, but the federal government is missing an opportunity to use federal funds as a tool to incentivize states to abandon inhumane, pointless predator control efforts in favor of science-based conservation programs.

Brown bears are a conservation-reliant species. That means their welfare and conservation must prioritized if they are to survive for future generations. So many Americans love bears and wolves, and these animals are incredibly valuable from ecological and economic perspectives. In Alaska’s Katmai National Park, opportunities to view brown bears are so popular that these excursions are limited by lottery. More than 10 million viewers each year tune in to online bear cams to watch the animals fish for salmon, and people around the world participate in and vote during the immensely popular Fat Bear Week. And yet the long-term survival of grizzly bears is uncertain. In addition to Alaskan-sponsored shooting and trapping of brown bears, trophy hunters have doubled their kill numbers for bears over the past 30 years in 76% of Alaska. In a 2018 letter to the U.S. Department of the Interior, multiple biologists warned that officials need to protect Alaska’s bears, as well as wolves, from over-hunting for trophies and killings in the name of “predator control.”

The bottom line is that Alaska’s predator-killing program—and indeed, the broader concept of state- or federally funded predator control—makes no sense from any sound standpoint. Alaska should not treat its expansive wilderness as game farms for trophy hunters and must scrutinize its sloppy assumption that killing one kind of animal will increase the abundance of another kind. And the federal government must ensure that funds it provides to states for conserving the nation’s precious wildlife do not go toward supporting their extirpation.

Speak up for grizzly bears and tell the government these animals deserve protection.  

Kitty Block is CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.