State wildlife officials trying to revive Southwest Alaska caribou killed almost 100 brown bears in less than a month

Department of Fish and Game employees killed nearly 100 brown bears in less than a month in a first-ever predator control hunt aimed at restoring a renowned Southwest Alaska caribou herd by increasing calf survival.

The Alaska Board of Game in March approved an aerial predator control hunt on bears in a game unit north of Dillingham to shore up the flagging Mulchatna caribou herd, once one of the state’s largest.

A total of 94 brown bears, five black bears and five wolves were killed in the program that began May 10 and ended June 4, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said this week. That’s more than four times the number biologists predicted would be taken.

The hunt was planned to coincide with the spring calving season. It took place over 1,200 square miles of sprawling tundra that includes Wood-Tikchik State Park, at 1.6 million acres the largest state park in the country.

Fish and Game staffers targeted the predators from a helicopter over the calving grounds as they spotted them, according to Tim Peltier, the agency’s Palmer-based regional supervisor. The total killed included a small number of bear cubs, Peltier said last week.

The hunt marked the state’s first predator control on bears in the Mulchatna caribou range, a pilot program to gauge whether saving calves boosts overall herd survival. But private hunters have been allowed to target wolves since 2012, with little increase seen in herd strength.

Wildlife advocates called the number of brown bears killed alarming, especially given findings last year by state biologists showing limited food supply and disease play a larger role in overall Mulchatna herd declines than predators.


State officials say there’s no question other factors are influencing caribou survival. But, short of vaccinating for brucellosis or dropping caribou feed, predators are the only problem that can be addressed immediately.

[Killing wolves and bears over nearly 4 decades did not improve moose hunting, study says]

Research presented to the Board of Game in January 2022 indicated that predators, mostly brown bears, were responsible for nearly 90% of newborn calf deaths between 2011 and 2021.

But more generally, predators did not appear to be a major problem for the adult females that are key to rebuilding the herd by having healthy pregnancies and calves.

The researchers found the main threats were loss of food supply to climate change or overgrazing and brucellosis, a disease that can lead to swollen joints and reproductive issues that can limit calf and adult survival. Some animals were also killed by illegal hunting.

One of the biologists making the presentation described a “mistaken belief” that killing a predator automatically saves a caribou: bears or wolves are more likely to kill injured, diseased or malnourished animals that might not survive anyway.

The surprisingly high number of bears killed in the Mulchatna program is “especially egregious” given those findings, said Carol Damberg, board president of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance.

““They’re ignoring their own biology ... they’re not following the science,” Damberg said Thursday. “If they were, they wouldn’t be doing this.”

Prioritizing calf survival

The game board — seven Alaskans appointed by the governor and approved by the Legislature — decides statewide fish and wildlife policies that are applied by the Department of Fish and Game. The board also approves predator control hunts in specific areas with declining moose, caribou, elk or deer populations.

Game board members are well aware of the larger habitat and disease problems within the Mulchatna herd, board chairman Jerry Burnett said this week. During the March meeting, several members asked about nutritional issues as well as brucellosis.

But in the short term, members felt it was crucial to protect calves from bears given the herd’s continued low numbers, said Burnett, a Juneau fishing and wildlife viewing charter owner and former state deputy revenue commissioner.

“When it’s down to this level, survival of the calves is really important. Because every one you lose is a big deal at this point,” he said. “The people that live out there, that’s food. It’s not like we’re doing this to make sure the sport hunters in Anchorage or Fairbanks or out of state get something. This is for people that live in that area.”

Many people rely on the Mulchatna herd for meat and income, from subsistence hunters and residents to guides and clients. Locals say the caribou have cycled up and down for centuries. Biologists say the herd peaked in the 1990s at about 200,000 animals but has declined to fewer than 13,000. The herd migrates from calving grounds north of Dillingham to winter range southeast of Bethel.

All hunting on the Mulchatna herd closed in the fall of 2021, state officials say. Some animals are still illegally killed. State and federal authorities documented 11 apparent hunter kills this year and 23 two winters ago.

Far more bears than expected

At the March Board of Game meeting in Soldotna, a state biologist put the number of bears expected to be killed at anywhere between 15 and “the low 20s” based on information from biologists and pilots in the area. There is no official estimate of bear numbers in the area targeted to help the herd. Hunters had killed just two bears there in the past decade.

This week, Fish and Game officials said it appeared many brown bears traveled to the calving grounds from other areas. They also consider Western Alaska’s bears and wolves to be at healthy levels, allowing local populations to recover within a few years.

Wildlife groups say the addition of bears to the aerial hunt plan also came with little public notice.


The board added bears to the existing intensive management plan for the Mulchatna herd at the January 2022 meeting held in Wasilla, according to Ryan Scott, acting director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation. A wolf control program already in place was up for renewal.

The board had received proposals “to do more to help the herd” and expand predator control efforts, Scott said in an email. Public input came in the years leading up to the board action on the proposal in 2022, he said.

State officials say any salvageable meat went to communities including those willing to take brown bear meat. They are working with Bristol Bay Native Association to distribute the last of it.

The state Division of Wildlife Conservation plans to monitor summer calf survival and whether herd numbers go up in the predator control area compared to recent years and to animals born in an eastern part of the range where predators weren’t targeted.

That information will be evaluated to determine if “further bear and wolf reductions” are warranted in the spring to aid calf survival and herd growth, officials said.

Zaz Hollander

Zaz Hollander is a veteran journalist based in the Mat-Su and is currently an ADN local news editor and reporter. She covers breaking news, the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at zhollander@adn.com.