In a new package of policies criticized even by some hunters, the Alaska Board of Game on Tuesday opened the door to aerial gunning of bears by state wildlife officials. It also debated a measure that would allow more widespread snaring of bears -- including grizzlies, which are officially considered threatened across most of the U.S.
The controversial "intensive management" moves are the latest in a series of increasingly aggressive control methods targeting bears and wolves in Alaska. In some parts of the state, wolf pups can be gassed in their dens, bear cubs and sows can be hunted, and wolves shot from helicopters.
The board deferred until March the decision on whether to permit baiting and snaring of black bears and grizzlies in additional areas, a practice utilized for the last four years as part of a pilot project in central Alaska.
But it removed the historical blanket prohibition against aerial hunting of bears and specifically authorized state game agents to begin helicopter and fixed-wing hunting of bears along the Dalton Highway corridor in the high Arctic, where a precarious population of musk oxen has been threatened by predators.
"That potentially does open up that (aerial) method for other places as well -- to take bears with aerial shooting and land-and-shoot," David James, Region 3 supervisor for the state Department of Fish and Game's Division of Wildlife Conservation, said in an interview. "It would no longer be illegal to do that anywhere else in the state."
The stepped-up measures are designed to appease long-standing concerns among a broad swath of Alaskans about declining populations of moose and caribou, upon which much of rural Alaska depends for food.
The National Park Service is arguing forcefully -- and so far unsuccessfully -- that techniques such as snaring, baiting, trapping and using artificial lights to hunt down bears in their dens should not be used on bears and wolves in the 19 million acres of federal wildlife refuges in Alaska.
"In this larger war on bears and wolves, the Board of Game has created a number of hunting methods which we find objectionable," said Jim Stratton, Alaska director for the National Parks Conservation Association. "It's all being done to manipulate the population of predators, to reduce them so you can grow more moose and caribou, and that is in direct conflict with how the park service is supposed to manage their land. They have a management policy which specifically says you don't manipulate the population of one species to benefit the hunting of another."
Opponents have also raised humanitarian concerns, arguing that methods such as snaring often leave bears to writhe in distress for long periods before they are finally shot.
"I personally disagree with the snaring of the bear," said Terry Holliday, president of the state chapter of Safari Club International, one of Alaska's premier hunting organizations -- though he said he supported reducing predators to boost game populations.
"If they want a lower bear population, they can do it in different ways," he said. "It's not humane. You shoot something, you kill it. If it's properly done, it's bang, and it's over, with the animal not suffering. But when you go out and you start snaring animals and whoever's doing it, say, the weather's bad and you can't get back for several days, here's a bear sitting there in a snare with a bucket on its foot."
Critics of the new measures, including Democratic former Gov. Tony Knowles, say they're in conflict with the wildlife management advice of most scientists. Over-hunting by humans, including that by trophy hunters from outside Alaska, is responsible for much of the decline in moose and caribou, they contend.
But in some ways, the Department of Fish and Game has its hands tied. The Alaska Legislature in 1994 passed an unusual law directing state officials to adopt an "intensive management" policy across crucial parts of the state. The policy was aimed at maximizing the production of human food species -- if necessary, at the expense of bears, wolves and other predators.
The last three administrations, all Republican, have enthusiastically implemented the directive. The Board of Game, appointed by the governor and dominated by hunting advocates, has steadily increased the menu of options available to target predators. Many were strongly pushed by the state's recent wildlife conservation director, Corey Rossi, a friend of former Gov. Sarah Palin's family.
Rossi resigned last week after facing criminal charges alleging that he filed false state reports in connection with a black bear hunt in 2008.
State game officials have argued for even stronger tactics against predators because they say traditional bear hunts -- which often target large males -- fail to eliminate the females and cubs that they say must be eradicated if there are to be meaningful declines in predator populations.
Opponents of the policies say indiscriminate methods such as snaring can quickly push bear populations -- abundant now -- into steep decline, especially since grizzlies are so slow to reproduce.
"In a state once known for its scientific approach to wildlife management, we have entered a time tunnel back to the times of the Wild West," said Valerie Connor, conservation director for the Alaska Center for the Environment.
The state's 4-year-old pilot project permits baiting and snaring of bears in an area about 40 miles across Cook Inlet from Anchorage. A year ago, that was expanded to include snaring of grizzly bears.
Bruce Dale, Region 4 wildlife conservation supervisor, said the technique is used in Quebec, Canada; Maine and other locations in which researchers want to examine or collar bears. A total of 24 grizzlies were killed at the snares near Anchorage last year; 93 were killed by hunters without snares. The black bear snare total was 56, with 263 otherwise shot.
"Some people would just like to have this as a legal method to take bears," Dale said of the proposal to expand legal snaring and aerial gunning across about 10,000 square miles of the Kuskokwim River watershed.
State wildlife agents may have to do some of the removals themselves if hunters aren't lured by the expanding opportunities.
"We're still trying to determine whether these new legal methods to reduce bear populations (are) going to be effective enough to increase moose calf survival," Dale said. "Because there's really limited interest in hunting bears among residents today."