Fairbanks, AK - The Alaska Department of Fish and Game took 89 bears this month as part of a predator control program approved by the Board of Game last year. The efforts are meant to encourage the growth of a struggling moose population in Southwest Alaska.
Hunting for moose in much of Game Management 19a, which includes villages like Kalskag, Aniak and Sleetmute, has been closed since 2005 because of a decline in the population. Fish and Game Wildlife Biologist and Spokesperson Cathie Harms says moose numbers are down because of heavy predation.
“So this year, the Department conducted a bear control program," says Harms. "We ended up taking 89 bears in a very small 500 square mile area and hopefully that’s going to give a kick start to the moose population, which will provide more moose for the area and more moose for hunters.”
But other biologists in the state disagree with the program. Vic Van Ballenberg has studied moose and wolves in Alaska for nearly four decades. “This to my knowledge is the first time that the Department of Fish and Game biologists have shot bears from helicopters as part of a control program," he says. "And that’s something that 15 or 20 years ago would have been unheard of. It’s an extreme program and it’s even more extreme when the goal was to remove virtually every bear from that area,” says Van B allenberg.
The Board of Game agreed to create the Bear Control Focus Area south of the Kuskokwim River for two years at the request of local hunters and the area’s Fish and Game Advisory Committee. Fish and Game’s Cathie Harms says removal of the bears will have negligible effects on the overall game management unit, which is 20 times larger than the Control Focus Area. “It is so small that we expect bears to migrate in and within probably four years, completely reinhabit all the bear habitat at similar densities," Harms says. "The difference is by giving a two year relief from predation, the moose population can step up and handle more predation for a longer period.”
But Vic Van Ballenberg doesn’t think the right information was used to establish the control area. “In this case, I do not think that there was adequate field work done prior to approving the control program to actually link bear predation to poor moose calf survival,” he says.
This year’s bear control program is in addition to one for wolves that’s been in effect since 2004. Cathie Harms says wolf control hasn’t worked in favor of moose in the region. She says other management strategies were not an option. “It’s particularly challenging because bear densities are high throughout a lot of the interior, there aren’t a lot of other places we could put bears," she says. "In terms of other types of programs, we looked at diversionary feeding during calving season where we provide other things to eat. That’s prohibitively expensive, far more than what we could have afforded to do.”
The Department will cull more bears next spring. Meat harvest as part of the program was donated to eight nearby villages. Bear hides will be sold at auction.