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 recent case in point: as I recounted in a commentary published earlier this year, 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 an 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 another, even more recent instance: the Alaska Board of Game (BOG) 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 BOG 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. Even more outrageous, perhaps, is the fact that Department of Fish and Game managers admit they have no idea how many bears inhabit the area.
In response to a concerned Alaskan who asked what Unit 9’s brown bear population is, agency staff replied, “Unknown. Bear populations fluctuate like other wildlife populations, but are difficult and very expensive to monitor.”
So much for science. So much for a conservation ethic.
That the BOG and F&G 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—in essence a commentary—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 who once worked for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (F&G); both are widely known for their bear research. The third Alaskan, Sandy Rabinowitch, had a long career with the National Park Service and worked on many Alaskan wildlife-management issues. All are highly qualified to comment on Alaska’s mismanagement of bears and wolves.
To briefly recap their principle points, the authors assert that Alaska’s gray wolves and both 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 the argument that the state’s long-running predator-reduction effort is a systemic problem that will likely only change if an “intensive management” law passed by the Alaska Legislature in the 1990s is overturned. It also makes clear that the state of Alaska’s wildlife management system is outdated, regressive, and scientifically indefensible.
I repeat: these widely respected wildlife scientists condemn our state’s wildlife management system as 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 reversed course and decided to allow such methods in national preserves and wildlife refuges. As widely reported, these include bear baiting, the killing of female black bears with cubs—and those 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: F&G’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 a recent newspaper commentary headlined “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 (and fishing) priority for rural Alaskans. And his defense of “those who practice millennia-old harvest strategies,” would be more genuine if in fact the state would restrict those hunting methods to the indigenous peoples for whom they have truly been “customary and traditional,” for generations going back hundreds or even 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 BOG and Department of Fish and Game (F&G) have allowed ever more extreme hunting methods, all in the name of intensive management. Many of those methods are nowadays considered unethical in more progressive, enlightened places, and they clearly violate any notion of fair-chase practices.
But we don’t have to look beyond our own state to find widespread opposition to such hunting methods. A statewide poll done in 2018 showed that a large majority of Alaskans—yes, residents, not the Outside “extremists” state officials love to excoriate—oppose such practices as the killing of black bear moms and their cubs in dens, the use of “bait stations” to kill black and brown bears, or the killing of wolf and coyote families at their den sites.
The notion that our wildlife management officials—whether on the BOG or working in F&G—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.
And yet there’s no evidence of any widespread citizen effort to end our state’s appalling predator-kill program.
I remember thinking, back in the early 1990s—during the days of Gov. Walter Hickel’s “you can’t let nature run wild,” proclamation—that Alaska’s predator-kill efforts would end, or at least be greatly diminished, when those with such “old school” attitudes died off. But nearly 30 years later, the state of Alaska’s wildlife management practices, as they apply to bears and wolves, are more regressive than they’ve ever been.
Why is that?
I think there are parallels with the circumstances that have led to the current cultural uprising tied to the Black Lives Matter movement, the unprecedented 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 the injustices suffered by blacks and other people of color, most Alaskans don’t see and perhaps can’t really even imagine the cruel and unethical ways that bears and wolves and other predators 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—most notably wolves—has been when photographs and videos revealed to the larger public have documented the cruelty that’s occurred.
Given our species’ willingness to overlook or rationalize or turn away from the oppression and violence done to our own kind, I suppose it’s way easier to do so with other life forms. And yet there have been cultural shifts in how we behave toward other creatures. It seems Alaskans haven’t yet been ready to insist on change, at least partly—perhaps largely—because of what’s called the “Alaska mystique,” the romanticization of Alaska’s frontier past, and the glorification (at least in some quarters) of trophy hunting and trapping.
It seems that all of this is integral to the false narrative pushed by our state’s wildlife managers, and why it hasn’t been challenged. It’s why our state’s wildlife managers, who are supposed to serve the interests of all Alaskans, can get away with serving only 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 and change a cruel, unethical, and corrupt predator-kill system that’s been shamefully out of control for far too long.
Anchorage nature writer 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.” He’s also a longtime advocate for wild nature in its myriad forms. Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at email@example.com.