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On Point: Predator Control

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) recently concluded the second season of intensive predator control in a 534-square-mile area of Game Management Unit 19A. The program in the Sleetmute area was implemented after hunters and the local fish and game advisory committee made the request to attempt to bring back a diminished moose population that had precluded hunting for several years. Wolf control had been implemented in 2004, with little success in returning moose numbers. Predator seasons, including wolf, black and brown bear, were extended with little result. Thus, 2013 and 2014 efforts were directed at black and brown bears. river_bear_8-17-13_060.jpgThe 2013 efforts by biologists utilizing fixed-wing aircraft for spotting and a helicopter for shooting the bears resulted in 89 bears taken (84 black and 5 brown); the 2014 effort produced 54 black bear kills and 10 brown bear kills. All of the meat was salvaged and distributed amongst local villages, approximately four tons in 2013 and three tons in 2014. Speaking with one of the biologists involved in the project, which took place in late May, he noted a substantial increase in moose sightings, particularly yearlings, from the year before.

The expectation is, of course, a huntable population of moose in this area rather quickly. ADF&G suggests that bear populations in the area will return to pre-predator control numbers in five- to six years.

Predator control as a part of game management has certainly proven to be a viable method of increasing ungulate populations (namely moose and caribou) in spite of the many detractors of the concept. Nevertheless, and playing the devil’s advocate for a moment, is it a viable and sustainable method of management? The Unit 19A area was targeted after additional seasons and opportunities for hunters to harvest predators failed. One comment from a biologist involved was the local folks demanding more moose don’t hunt bears or wolves, as the cost of fuel to run the rivers and access the country is prohibitive. So one has to wonder when the same local population is provided with the bear meat from the control measures and evidently utilizes it for consumption is that simply because bear meat isn’t worth the effort to go out and harvest while moose is? In five or six years will the process be repeated to again provide for additional moose when their numbers drop?

What has always crept around in the back of my mind in these predator-prey issues is that evidently we as hunters are simply incapable of controlling the predators we compete with for table fare on our own. On the other hand, there was a time not all that long ago when the apex predators we compete with were taken as need be. Hunters could hunt, trappers could trap and predators were kept largely in check. It is only in the relatively recent past that hunters and trappers have been restricted from taking these animals and their populations have gotten out of hand rather quickly. Once their numbers get out of hand there is virtually no chance that they can be brought back under control without serious control measures. Intensive predator management has proven to be an effective method of boosting ungulate populations virtually everywhere it has been implemented, but these measures are met with stiff resistance from some groups and like in Unit 19A, the damage has already been done. It seems unlikely that we will be able to get ahead of predator populations with normal harvest when they are over-abundant in given areas. The question then is: how much intensive predator management will be allowed or funded? There are now and will be more areas where predator population management will fall on the shoulders of hunters and trappers via conventional methods. It is something to think about.

There is at least some good news for ungulates in southcentral Alaska where wildfires burned some 200,000 acres of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge (formally known as the Kenai Moose Range) and remarkably, not hurting anyone or causing significant damage to private property. The area was considered a tinderbox and it was not a matter of if, but a matter of when, it would burn. The combination of pure good fortune and valiant efforts of firefighters kept the fire out of populated areas.  For the next 25- to 30 years the new growth promoted by the burn should significantly enhance Kenai Peninsula moose populations and perhaps return the Kenai to a viable moose hunting area.

The 2014-15 Alaska hunting regulations are now available in booklet form at license vendors. As the regulatory year comes to a close don’t forget to file harvest ticket reports and renew your black bear harvest tickets where applicable.

Moose hunting in GMU 26A has mostly been closed by emergency order. If you have a permit in that area double-check with ADF&G to make sure it remains valid before you hunt. The countdown to August 10 is on! Time to get that equipment out, zero hunting rifles, etc… Summer in Alaska is so busy these things often get put off until the last minute, and no one wants a good hunt to go bad for lack of attention to detail.

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