(Editor Note: This is the third in a series of posts concerning predators in at least one part of rural Alaska. The first was “Buckled Ice….” which covered some of the difficulties of traveling to an area Advisory Committee, the second ” A Rogue Grizzly, What It Cost us!”covers the Christmas Eve event that gave one family still more motivation to be involved in ‘the process’ of game management in Alaska. )
In the days and weeks following the brutal attack in our yard by the ‘rogue’ Brown Bear we struggled to try to figure out why this unusual event happened. If it had happened any other time but during a lengthy cold spell, with good snow cover and in the winter, it would have been tragic but maybe not as alarming. Occasionally, we have sightings of bears in the winter but they usually have been driven out by warm/wet weather and are looking only to den up again and stay away from villages. Any starving bears would most likely not denned up to start. Bears as a whole, even out here in the ‘bush’, prefer to stay away from humans. They do not come into town, as has been known in larger cities, as there are no garbage cans or food left out for the easy pickings. They will venture nearer village areas when human activity is low to pull fish out of nets in the summer, but usually they avoid direct contact with human and even dog encounters. As a whole they avoid dogs like the plague because of the barking and nipping dogs tend to do.
At Christmas Eve dinner the evening of the attack with the rest of our small village we, of course, discussed the totally out-of-character, brutal attack on our dog by this bear. We talked about how one resident had been ‘mock’ charged by bears twice this past summer, once from behind. In every bear encounter we in the village had, were either ones the bear made moves to get away, or allowed the human to get out-of-the-way. None of us felt we were stalked for the sake of killing outright, as did the bear that killed our dog.
We came to find out a few days later that a bear had been spotted south of our village, surrounded by wolves. This drew concern as we wonder if the wolves that were lately being driven away from villages had taken to looking for bears in dens, as a food source. If they were successful this would happen more. There was also concern about if this bear had some illness like rabies. ( A quick internet search showed that although it happens, in Brown/Grizzly it is rare) We still had to wonder why he was not just looking to re-den up, or head south where there were easier and more plentiful game to be had. He had an adequate fat layer and coat that lead all of us to believe he had been denned up.
The state of Alaska admits it does not have good ‘numbers’ on a variety of fronts in regards to game and one of those is how many nuisance bears are killed each season. They are aware that the vast majority, many figure roughly 90%, of nuisance killings are not reported. Most have to agree that the regulation that requires whomever kills the bear to skin it and along with the skull ship it to the Fish & Game office. NO one has time or the inclination to do this time-consuming job especially when they are pushing to put up their food stores for the winter or make the majority of yearly income in a few short weeks. (Most nuisance bears happen in the spring and summer, with very few in the fall.)
Not doing this task of skinning will usually result in a ticket issued, and a large fine. It is considered wanton waste of an animal by the state, and thus the penalties.
Presently what happens most often with nuisance bears is either they are shot badly enough to go off and die somewhere, usually a gut shot, or they are killed outright and disposed of in a river or pulled out into the bush. This leads to the added burden of orphaned cubs that either starve to death or are killed by other bears in the area. They also many times must also be killed by a resident as they become an issue unto themselves.
People in the villages stay quiet about this as a whole. All of this leads to virtually no reporting of the issue to troopers and Fish & Game. This is one of the missing factors in good management, a lack of good numbers. A change/modification in the regulation for skinning appears to be a good start.
On top of this issue you have increased populations of wolves that are starving. There is plenty of evidence from sightings, trappers and those who hunt them and of course the death of the teacher from a starving pack. (Update: from recent discussions with trappers the general population seems to have taken a good hit this winter and we are seeing less wolves overall. Also those trapped have not shown drastic signs of starving, as was seen the last few years)
Wolves in this area have been gaining not only numbers to the best of everyone’s understanding but at the same time our caribou herds have crashed and more pressure is being put on our dwindling moose population. We had the horrific death last year of a local school teacher by wolves. The pack that attacked her was starving, chased her down and killed her. (In the past we had a healthy trapping group that used airplanes to access hard to reach areas. That is no longer, thus the numbers of wolves have slowly increased)
Our area, the Alaska Peninsula, has been managed for years for outside hunters, and for trophy sized bears. This is an issue that has been in the making for YEARS and is going to take some time to get back into balance.
In the view of many, and which has happened in many areas of Alaska, all this ‘management’ for hunters has caused populations to become greatly out of balance.
There is evidence that the caribou herds grew so large they overgrazed the area, and then a number of added factors lead to the numbers crashing in the last 10 years. Then through a variety of policies the area had little to no way to reduce the Brown Bear population, which is usually through being easily able to get rid of the bears that hung around villages. At the same time outside hunters were coming in and killing the largest bears. (Large male bears, boars, are some of the best birth control as they kill cubs and younger weaker bears helping greatly to keep the population in a better balance).
For some time now the Lower Bristol Bay Advisory committee, our local arm of access to the Game Board, has been working to make suggestions on either hunting restrictions, a predator program or changes in the regulations to get in front of the issue of game being in a better ‘balance’.
This year the state actually submitted a proposal to allow for any ‘nuisance bear’ to be killed within 5 miles of a village with the hopes of reducing those bears that cause issues. Amendments have been offered to modify the skinning requirement. There are a number of other proposals to change dates of and/or lengthen bear hunts to hopefully result in a better number taken.
Various wolf programs have been already taken on in small ways to reduce those populations. (Since the death of the teacher monies have been ‘found’ to offer trapping workshops so local trappers can learn to be more efficient and humane while reducing numbers)
Our hope is that during this time we had before the Game Board the subject was listened to and the changes that were agreed upon by the board can be implemented.
It also appears that residents, local hunters, game managers, lodge owners and guides need to come together to draft at least area suggestions/plans of how best to understand and manage the game we all rely on. Resources can be managed more efficiently, locals can help with numbers and spotting of animals, once trained and we can be creative in how best to accomplish balanced goals. It is so much easier to just complain of lack of budgets, no one listening, or a variety of other whines but harder to find common ground to work toward solutions.
There are a number of entities, from the federal and state governments, tribes/cities to residents that need to find a way to coordinate research, animal surveys, reporting and other input needed to accomplish the goals worked out with the needs of all.
We should hear in the coming weeks how all the changes that were agreed to by the board will be implemented and if they will have any impact.