OPINION: During Fat Bear Week, let’s not forget Alaska’s state-run slaughter of bears

Alaska’s “Fat Bear Week” is underway and, for the next several days, will capture the attention of wildlife lovers around the world.

Begun in 2014 as Fat Bear Tuesday, the now weeklong event, Oct. 4-10, has grown into a hugely popular global phenomenon, a celebration of the brown bears that fatten up on salmon while fishing Katmai National Park’s Brooks River, a place long famous for its annual gathering of bears.

In 2022, more than a million votes were cast online in a tournament-style bracket competition to determine Katmai’s “fattest bear.”

I’ve never cast a vote. But as a longtime wildlife and wildlands advocate, and one who’s walked among Katmai’s bears, I wholeheartedly support what Fat Bear Week organizers are doing. Their competition brings widespread positive attention to not only Alaska’s brown bears, but the importance of the wildly rich ecosystem that allows them to grow so big — the largest males may weigh 1,500 pounds or more — within the Bristol Bay watershed, a place best known for its unmatched runs of salmon, and a region where bears outnumber people.

What most Fat Bear Week voters don’t know, but which many Alaskans know all too well is this: Earlier in the year, in another part of the Bristol Bay region less than 200 miles from the Brooks River, employees of Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game killed — executed might not be too strong a word — nearly 100 brown bears in only a few weeks’ time, as part of an “intensive management program” intended to benefit the shrunken Mulchatna caribou herd.

While dozens of media outlets and platforms — from the Washington Post, New York Times, CBS News and NPR to Wikipedia, Instagram, X (formerly Twitter) and YouTube — have covered the good news story of Fat Bear Week, few media outside Alaska have reported on the unprecedented and alarming kill of brown bears by state wildlife managers.

Here in Alaska, meanwhile, that slaughter, which killed 94 brown bears — including 20 cubs — along with five black bears and five wolves, has generated strong criticism not only from wildlife activists like myself, but also independent wildlife scientists, a former governor and former high-level officials in Fish and Game. Still, many important voices have remained silent — for instance, those in the tourism industry, which benefits greatly from Alaska’s living bears. Alaska Native leaders, too, have not spoken publicly, that I’m aware. And neither have sportsmen’s groups.


There are numerous troubling — and frankly, shameful — aspects of that “Mulchatna brown bear massacre,” many of which I pointed out in a commentary published in the ADN not long after the incident.

I won’t repeat those here. But I will point out that in the months since the carnage occurred, more has been learned about the state’s springtime bear slaughter, thanks in large part to a Fish and Game memo that’s been publicly shared.

Independent wildlife scientists who have reviewed the memo — including some who once worked for the state — point out that it demonstrates Fish and Game did not follow its own intensive management, or IM, policies.

For example, there is no evidence the department did a scientific analysis, or designed a plan, to determine how much — if at all — the caribou herd would benefit from Fish and Game’s “predation control program” before its employees went out and killed all those bears, as required by its IM policy. Even now, one biologist told me, “It’s not clear how Fish and Game plans to quantitatively measure the success of the project.” If in fact it is successful. All of this, the biologist added, is “a significant flaw.”

There is also this fact: A map accompanying the memo shows — and the memo confirms — that the primary area where bears were killed is different than the location Fish and Game presented to the Alaska Board of Game for its approval. “Did the department feel any need to confer with the board, or others, before making significant modifications to the board-approved plan?” one biologist asked.

Particularly disturbing is that the primary target zone was moved farther to the west, beside the border of the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge, where IM is not allowed. Almost certainly, brown bears that spend much of their lives in the refuge were among those killed, one more troubling aspect of what happened.

Many more questions have been raised, that deserve answers — and accountability. For now, I’ll simply re-emphasize that the available evidence suggests Fish and Game apparently changed its killing strategy on the fly, and did not follow the plan that had been approved by the Board of Game. Furthermore, the department did not follow its own IM policy; its final kill total far exceeded the estimates it had given the board; and any staff conclusions about the impact of this excessive killing to the area’s brown bear population are nothing more than “wild guesses.”

In the end, one bear researcher noted, “it was ultimately about killing expediency.” “The more dead bears the better” was the department’s apparent mindset, regardless of whether that would help the caribou herd.

During a time of celebrating Katmai’s bears, it’s important to remember that the state’s management of bears in some other parts of Alaska remain regressive, brutal and inhumane. And unscientific, whatever Fish and Game insists. Only when large numbers of those who love Alaska’s wildlife — people both inside and outside the state — begin to protest this awful and outdated behavior will change start to happen.

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

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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."