We are retired wildlife scientists and managers living in Alaska, with varied backgrounds in state, federal and university organizations. We value Alaska’s hunting heritage and the importance of wildlife in providing a sustainable source of food and cultural values. We, and many Alaskans, also enjoy wildlife viewing and photography.
We were surprised and alarmed when we read about the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Mulchatna predator control action where 94 brown bears, five black bears and five wolves were shot from a helicopter in Southwest Alaska this spring. After reviewing more details, including Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang’s commentary and the Mulchatna Intensive Management Operational Plan, we feel compelled to speak up.
In the mid-1970s, the Mulchatna caribou herd numbered about 14,000, comparable to today’s herd, and was thought to have been low throughout the previous century. Beginning in the 1980s, the herd grew steadily to 200,000 animals by 1996, then rapidly declined to its current size, about 12,000. We know that caribou herds naturally go through significant fluctuations over time and that it can take many decades for forage resources to recover from overuse during population peaks.
Early calf mortality in recent years has fluctuated, but has been relatively low in many years and variable between east and west calving areas. Black and brown bears and wolves were the predominant predators. Other key factors affecting herd abundance include reported overgrazing, shrubs replacing lichens (a critical winter forage), variable weather, disease, and continuing human harvests despite hunting closures. Clearly, all these factors are in play for the Mulchatna herd, while rising temperatures increase future uncertainty for caribou. After reviewing Fish and Game’s briefing to the Alaska Board of Game and the Mulchatna Intensive Management Plan, we do not believe the Mulchatna predator control decision was underpinned by the best available science, nor was it adequately vetted with the public prior to implementation.
Alaska’s 1994 “Intensive Management” law established the harvesting of meat from Alaska’s big game species as the management priority in most of the state. This law required the Board of Game to consider techniques for increasing game populations important for human consumption before adopting regulations that would reduce the harvest of these animals. Reducing predators has been the primary technique used to increase abundance of big game in Alaska, but Fish and Game has yet to show that it can effectively increase caribou populations when other factors are clearly influencing herd dynamics.
It appears to us that the Mulchatna predator control action was a top-down decision by Fish and Game leadership with unanimous support of the Board of Game to expand wolf control after 11 years, with no measurable effect, and to add bear control on one of two calving grounds. We recognize that both wolf and bear predation are factors in caribou calf mortality. However, Fish and Game staff scientists cautioned about the ineffectiveness of the past wolf control program. They also described nutritional limitations on adult cows, as well as a high incidence of the disease brucellosis, both of which affect reproduction and individual survival. Investigations of adult female mortality revealed that even though the hunting season has been closed since 2021, illegal harvest continues to affect the population. According to Fish and Game researchers, “Combined, these data point to nutritional challenges, disease, and human-related causes of death, as important and likely interacting with predation to limit the Mulchatna caribou herd recovery.” Additionally, the Mulchatna Intensive Management Plan provided no data on bear densities in the predator control area, nor criteria for evaluating success of the intensive management program.
In summary, the 34 wildlife professionals who have signed this commentary, with more than 1,000 years of combined Alaska experience, conclude there is weak scientific support for the Mulchatna control action. The Mulchatna intensive management program has unrealistic population and harvest goals given the history of the herd. It is unlikely that the goal of maintaining a population of 30,000-80,000 caribou is achievable and bear control is unlikely to substantially increase caribou numbers given current nutrition, disease, and illegal harvest issues. Finally, there is a lack of clear criteria for evaluating this intensive management program.
We believe Alaska can do better.
The authors are retired members of the listed organizations:
Julia Bevins, University of Alaska Fairbanks, International Association for Bear Research and Management, Homer
Geoff Carroll, ADF&G, Utqiagvik
Jim Dau, ADF&G, Kotzebue
Dirk Derksen, Alaska Science Center, U.S. Geological Survey, Anchorage
Rod Flynn, ADF&G, Juneau
Pat Heglund, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Homer
Thomas Hanley, U.S. Forest Service Research, Haines
Polly Hessing, ADF&G, Anchorage
Mimi Hogan, USFWS, Anchorage
Jerry Hupp, Alaska Science Center, USGS, Anchorage
David Irons, USFWS, Anchorage
Matt Kirchhoff, ADF&G, Anchorage
Kathy Kuletz, USFWS, Anchorage
Rosa Meehan, USFWS, Anchorage
John Morton, USFWS, Soldotna
Ed Murphy, UAF, Fairbanks
Jon Nickles, USFWS, University of Alaska Anchorage, Anchorage
Kate Persons, ADF&G, Nome
Ann Rappoport, USFWS, Anchorage
Harry Reynolds, ADF&G, Fairbanks
Pat Reynolds, USFWS, Bureau of Land Management, Fairbanks
Dan Rosenberg, ADF&G, Anchorage
Thomas Rothe, ADF&G, Eagle River
John Schoen, ADF&G, Anchorage
Dick Shideler, ADF&G, Fairbanks
Rick Sinnott, ADF&G, Anchorage
Winston Smith, USFS Research, Juneau
Don Spalinger, ADF&G, UAA, Eagle River
Derek Stonorov, ADF&G, Homer
Jerry Stroebele, USFWS, Anchorage
Nancy Tankersley, ADF&G, USFWS, Anchorage
Ken Whitten, ADF&G, Fairbanks
Mary Willson, USFS Research, Juneau
John Wright, ADF&G, Fairbanks
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