OPINION: No justification for mass shooting of 99 bears

On a quiet morning near Sitka, there’s a sudden eruption beyond the huckleberry bushes. It’s the deep growl of a brown bear. Hearing this powerful voice is more intense than seeing the bear.

In Southwest Alaska, 99 bears are no longer heard or seen because they were shot from a helicopter by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in an effort to rebuild the Mulchatna caribou herd. This mass shooting took place over a 17-day period in May and June. To imagine 99 dead bears splayed on the tundra is appalling.

Any bear spotted on the 1,200 square mile caribou calving ground was killed with a shotgun — 94 brown bears, including 20 cubs, 5 black bears, and 5 wolves. Bears in Wood-Tikchik State Park were not spared. Fish and Game stopped the slaughter because the calving season ended on June 4. There was no quota on the number of bears killed. There was inadequate information on how many bears lived in this calving region.

The slaughter was monitored daily and cost the state nearly a half-million dollars. I asked Fish and Game for a map showing the locations of the dead bears and they denied my request on confidentiality grounds. Given the excessive number of dead animals, it’s important for the public to know where these bears were shot and if any were illegally killed on federal land, in places such as Togiak National Wildlife Refuge.

Whether Alaskans approve or disapprove of predator control, one thing is clear: Predator reduction operations are to be grounded in science. Proposals for intensive management, or IM, plans are to be vetted by the public. The Alaska Board of Game authorized the killing of bears even though Fish and Game biologists pointed out that predation was not a significant cause for the declining Mulchatna herd. Biologists recommended that the department reevaluate its unsuccessful wolf control program. After the killing of 450 wolves, the herd wasn’t growing.

Biologists told the Board of Game in January 2022 that one third of the Mulchatna herd tested positive for brucellosis, an inflammatory disease that weakens pregnant cows and causes poor calf survival. Biologists reported that the herd was undernourished because its winter range was overgrazed in the 1990s. It takes decades for lichens to recover. Illegal harvest by humans was another factor. Climate change has additionally altered the landscape with an increase of shrubs. This has benefited moose but not caribou.

Biologists noted that many of the calves taken by predators would have died anyway because of their weakened state. Some may have been scavenged by predators. It’s ironic that predators can actually help caribou herds by removing the unhealthy animals, both young and adults.


Caribou herds fluctuate. In the 1990s, the Mulchatna herd irrupted and peaked at 200,000, then crashed during this unusual roller-coaster period. The herd’s population has historically been much lower. With overgrazing, disease, hunting pressure and climate change transforming the landscape, it’s not surprising that this herd has declined to 13,000, regardless of predators.

The Board of Game ignored the main causes for the herd’s decline, instead adding bears to the existing IM predator control plan. There was no opportunity for the public to comment. There was no public proposal to create a bear reduction program.

This IM program is slated to run for five years. If we don’t speak up for the bears and wolves, they will continue to be slaughtered.

Under AS 16.05.783, the Commissioner of Fish and Game will suspend IM program activities for the Mulchatna herd under certain conditions. Several of those conditions have been met:

1. After a decade of wolf reduction, there is no detectable increase in the total number of caribou,

2. the cow/calf ratios show no appreciable increase, and

3. a significant level of nutritional stress in the caribou population has been identified.

While we have a healthy population of 30,000 brown bears in Alaska, there is no justification to undervalue them and kill them in this reckless, disrespectful manner, with no cap, no bear population studies, no public feedback, in violation of Fish and Game’s 2011 Intensive Management Protocol.

This shameful form of wildlife management is an embarrassment to the state of Alaska. Contact Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang and ask them to suspend the IM program for the Mulchatna herd. Call the commissioner at 907-465-6141, or email doug.vincent-lang@alaska.gov.

It’s time to growl loudly for the bears.

Alaska author Debbie S. Miller has written many nature books about Alaska including her children’s book, “Grizzly Bears of Alaska.” Visit www.debbiemilleralaska.com to learn more.

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Debbie Miller

Debbie S. Miller is the author of many Alaska nature books. She lives in Fairbanks.