The lie – and shame – of Alaska wildlife management

For far too long, the state of Alaska has pushed a false narrative about its management of wildlife, one that the public has seemed willing to accept. Or perhaps most residents simply don’t care. It’s beyond time to end the charade and hold state officials accountable for their mismanagement, particularly of wolves and bears.

The falsehoods are many. First, there’s the lie that Alaska’s wildlife management is based on scientific principles and rigorous research. That may be true for some species, but is mostly untrue for bears and wolves.

A case in point: State wildlife managers in Southeast Alaska deferred to trappers rather than to science — or conservation principles — this past winter and allowed those trappers to self-regulate themselves, which resulted in a dramatic overharvest of 165 wolves, in a wolf population that state wildlife managers had guesstimated to be 170 wolves, plus or minus a few dozen. No scientific or wildlife-conservation principles guided that mismanagement debacle.

Here’s an even more recent example: the Alaska Board of Game has bowed to the wishes of big-game guides and trophy hunters, and in early June voted to add an extra brown bear hunting season on the Alaska Peninsula next spring, in order to “recoup hunter opportunity” that may have been lost because of travel restrictions connected to the COVID-19 pandemic.

What’s important to note here is that the Board of Game is choosing to ensure hunter opportunity at the possible expense of wildlife conservation. In adding the new season, board members have chosen to ignore the fact that state wildlife managers really don’t know the size of the brown bear population in Game Management Unit 9. And they are doing so despite concerns — expressed by a state biologist, among others — that the Alaska Peninsula’s brown bear population is declining.

So much for science. So much for a conservation ethic.

That the game board and Department of Fish and Game would cater to big-game guides and sport/trophy hunters is no surprise. They have a long history of doing so, especially for those who want to kill bears or wolves.


Don’t take my word for it. In 2019, the peer-reviewed scientific journal PLOS Biology published a “Perspective” piece titled “Large Carnivores Under Assault in Alaska.” Among its four authors were three Alaskans. Two of them, John Schoen and Sterling Miller, are highly respected wildlife scientists and bear researchers who once worked for Fish and Game. The third, Sandy Rabinowitch, had a long career with the National Park Service and worked on many Alaska wildlife management issues. All are highly qualified to address these issues.

To recap their principle points, the authors assert that Alaska’s gray wolves and brown and black bears “are managed in most of the state in ways intended to significantly reduce their abundance in the expectation of increasing hunter harvests of ungulates ... Large carnivore management in Alaska is a reversion to outdated management concepts and occurs without effective monitoring programs designed to scientifically evaluate impacts on predator populations.”

Their commentary makes clear that the state of Alaska’s wildlife management system is outdated, regressive and scientifically indefensible.

That same journal commentary further points out that federal agencies have for years resisted several of the state’s most egregious hunting and trapping practices because of different management priorities; but under the Trump administration, the federal government has decided to allow such methods in national preserves and wildlife refuges. These include bear baiting, the killing of female black bears and cubs while still in their dens, and the killing of wolves and coyotes, and their pups, during denning season.

Which brings me to another deception: Fish and Game’s claim that such controversial methods should be allowed on both state and federal lands because they are “age-old” traditional methods used by Alaska’s Indigenous peoples. Eddie Grasser, who directs the state’s Division of Wildlife Conservation, made just that argument in his commentary, “The assault on Alaska’s hunting heritage.”

Grasser’s arguments might seem more sincere if the state hadn’t for so long opposed a subsistence-hunting priority for rural Alaskans. And his defense of “those who practice millennia-old harvest strategies” would be more genuine if the state would restrict those hunting methods to the Indigenous peoples for whom they have truly been “customary and traditional” for thousands of years.

The truth is this: Many methods now permitted by the state — including the use of baiting to kill brown and grizzly bears, the killing of bear cubs and the killing of denning wolves — were not so long ago prohibited in Alaska as “sport” hunting practices. But using an incremental, let’s-see-what-we-can-get-away-with approach, the Board of Game and Department of Fish and Game have allowed ever more extreme methods that clearly violate any notion of fair-chase hunting.

The notion that our state’s wildlife management officials are somehow protecting Alaska’s hunting heritage by allowing such abhorrent methods on state lands, let alone insisting they be allowed in federal preserves and refuges, may be the biggest and most repugnant lie of all.

A statewide poll done in 2018 showed that a large majority of Alaskans oppose such practices. And yet there’s no evidence of any widespread citizen effort to end our state’s regressive and appalling predator-kill program.

Why is that?

I think there are parallels with the circumstances that have led to the current unprecedented cultural push for racial justice, and the increasingly widespread recognition that “white privilege” has allowed racism, racial injustices, and the oppression of — and violence against — Black Americans and more generally people of color to persist in our nation.

Just as white Americans have, until recently, largely been blind to such injustices, most Alaskans don’t see and perhaps can’t really imagine the cruel and unethical ways that bears and wolves are killed. The truism that comes to mind is “out of sight, out of mind.” What’s been happening has been easy to ignore, easy to dismiss.

The few times there’s been a widespread public uproar over the inhumane killing of Alaska’s wildlife has been when photographs and videos have revealed to the larger public the cruelty that’s occurred.

Given our species’ willingness to overlook or rationalize the oppression and violence done to our own kind, I suppose it’s way easier to do so with other life forms. It seems Alaskans haven’t yet been ready to insist on change, at least partly because of the “Alaska mystique,” the romanticization of Alaska’s frontier past, and the glorification in some quarters of trophy hunting and trapping.

All of this seems integral to the false narrative pushed by our state’s wildlife managers, why it hasn’t been sufficiently challenged. It’s why our state’s wildlife managers, who are supposed to serve the interests of all Alaskans, can get away with serving a tiny slice of the public: hunters, trappers and big-game guides.

It’s beyond time to recognize and acknowledge the deception and lies inherent in Alaska’s wildlife management today. It’s time to hold wildlife officials and our political leaders accountable by changing a cruel, unethical and corrupt predator-kill system that’s been shamefully out of control for far too long.

Anchorage nature writer and wildlife advocate Bill Sherwonit is the author of more than a dozen books, including “Alaska’s Bears” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.”

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Bill Sherwonit

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is the author of more than a dozen books, including "Alaska's Bears" and "Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska's Wildlife."