A controversial bear-snaring program designed to boost the moose population in an area on the other side of Cook Inlet from Anchorage was expanded Friday to include brown bears.
The Alaska Board of Game approved the move in a 900-square-mile area of Game Management Unit 16B near Tyonek and Beluga with a 4-3 vote.
"We know that brown bears are taking large numbers of calves," Alaska regional management supervisor Lem Butler said in a written statement Friday. "Research last summer indicates 47 percent of the calves that die are killed by brown bears. Black bears killed 21 percent and the remainder died from a variety of causes including drowning and unknown predators."
The board previously authorized the snaring and baiting of a population estimated at 3,000 black bears, and Fish and Game described the method as "an extremely effective method of take."
Now brown bears will be subject to the same baiting and foot-snaring technique.
Critics decry the methods. Bears are lured in with buckets of raw meat, and their paws are snared when they reach inside. Sometimes bears chew off a foot to escape.
"Not only will they chew their foot off, they can also easily maim themselves to the point that they are crippled," Wade Willis, an ex-wildlife worker who's become an agency watchdog, told the Associated Press last year.
Fish and Game says range conditions in the area are excellent, resulting in high pregnancy rates for moose cows. But state biologists think as many as 80 percent of moose calves die during their first summer. Predation has limited recovery of the moose population, which declined during a series of deep snow winters in the 1990s.
Willis is a member of Defenders of Wildlife, which is one of several groups that have condemned snaring.
"It's never been proven that you can safely and effectively conduct a snaring operation in black and brown bear country," Willis told the Associated Press.
Defenders maintains that snaring commercializes predator control by allowing skins to be resold by wholesalers and by not requiring hunters to keep the meat -- wasting one animal to artificially boost the population of another.
"It is very much an adaptive experiment," said regional Fish and Game supervisor Bruce Dale. "The effectiveness of reducing both bear species through harvest methods to increase moose calf survival has not been demonstrated."
Dale said his department will closely monitor the bear control efforts, to be conducted by state residents. Participants must attend department training to qualify for taking bears with foot snares.
Predator control goes back years.
In an effort to boost moose populations, wolf-reduction efforts began in 2004. In 2007, the board allowed predator control of black bears in an effort to increase spring and summer moose calf survival.
In 2009, the foot-snaring program on the west side of Cook Inlet killed 81 black bears, according to Fish and Game. At that time, a contractor for Fish and Game provided training and oversight of the program.
Eight people were selected to snare black bears beginning in May of that year, operating out of different locations under the supervision of the contractor or a Fish and Game employee.
Reach reporter Mike Campbell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4329.