Of tooth, claw and plane: Making my peace with predator control


Updated 3/6/2012

A troubling item appeared in the news last month, troubling to this news consumer and, if they could read, troubling to the predators of Alaska. Out of a desire to save caribou, moose, elk and in particular musk oxen, the state's Board of Game now allows state officials to shoot bears from planes and helicopters. 

The primary animals intended to benefit from the aerial gunning aren't really the ungulates. They're the primates. Alaska seeks, as a matter of policy, to maintain high herd counts for the Alaskans that depend on game for meat and the tourists who spend small fortunes on trophy hunting. As part of this "intensive management" zeal, Alaska's game officials have shot wolves from helicopters since 1972. Out of that same zeal, wolf pups have been gassed in their dens. 

Another method of control, bear snaring, is now legal in a region of central Alaska as part of a pilot project. To snare a bear, a trapper partially fills a bucket with meat and sets it somewhere, in a tree for example. A bear reaches in and gets caught in a wire, from which they cannot yank free. The bear then waits -- often in pain, sometimes for days -- until someone returns and shoots it. In March, the board will decide if bears -- including grizzlies, considered threatened in the lower 48 states -- can be baited throughout a wider region of the state.

Update 3/6/2012: On March 4 the Alaska Board of Game unanimously approved the plan to shoot black and grizzly bears from helicopters in a management area southeast of Fairbanks (unit 19A). The Department of Fish and Game estimates there are 135-160 black bears in the area and 10-15 brown bears. The plans do not state how many bears state biologists will target, only that the bear populations will be reduced “as low as possible.” Read the whole story in the Fairbanks News-Miner.

The hunting and gassing of wolves isn't news to those who follow hunting and game management, but it was news to me. The knowledge made my stomach do a surprising rotation. I've been trying to make sense of this and it's been a wrestle. It's not because I'm squeamish. The sight of a deer carcass gives me no pause. I was raised by hunter and fisher-folk. I've cleaned plenty of fish in my time. And, while it's no joy, I can pluck a duck. So the mindset of a game hunter is something I can respect. But trying to understand Alaska's stance on game management has been an entirely new form of mental gymnastics. 

Hunting seems justifiable as a traditional way our species has gathered food. Guns are tools, and we've used tools to procure and protect food since we first knocked fruit off a tree with a stick. To use helicopters, gas bombs and automatic weapons however, is to use weapons and tools of a fundamentally different level. It's an uncomfortable merger of the tools of modern warfare with a desire to express our prehistoric selves.

I've tried to imagine how I would feel, though, if I was part of Alaska's hunting community. Having mulled over it for a while, I'm going to admit I'd likely be considerably less self-righteous. Wildlife biologists are coming to a consensus that killing bears and wolves is a good way to boost ungulate populations (see HCN story: "Palin, politics, and Alaska predator control") And proponents of predator culling are fond of the land, even of the predators themselves. Viewed from one perspective, they are only doing what any animal would do -- defending food by any means possible. If tomorrow, by a genetic fluke, a grizzly grew a useful-for-hunting, rhino-like horn, it would use it. It wouldn't think, "Am I playing fair?" 

"Aerial shooting of the wolves is not about what is sporting, or what is fair," says Dennis Zadra, a hunting guide based in Cordova, Alaska. "It's about what's effective. It's about what is best for the whole game population." 

Managing wildlife can smooth out the population peaks and crashes that would occur naturally, Zadra says. That consistency is far better for most Alaskans.

"In my opinion, they are here for us to use and take care of," says Ben Holbrook, a guide in Delta Junction, Alaska. "One way to do that is make sure both predator and prey are there, to make sure they're a renewable resource." 

Holbrook's lifestyle and livelihood depend on the land and its animals. And when he says he cares about both the moose and the wolves, he's sincere. "I really like seeing them out there. I'd never shoot the last of anything. I support keeping them healthy too." Zadra shares the sentiment, "There is nowhere that they're trying to annihilate [wolves and bears]," he says. "They're just trying to get the moose and the caribou populations back." 

Before those of you in vehement disagreement push the comment button, let's reflect on a few things regarding our relationship with nature. Humans manage wildlife in many arenas: from the West's feral horses (who may soon be on contraception) to species reintroduction, to massive efforts to beat back species we've labeled weeds and invasives. In ecological terms, your elk burger, easier gotten for the shooting of a wolf, is far lighter on the planet than what you'd get at most backyard barbeques. And keeping a pig in a small pen and then killing it is at least as cruel as letting an animal run free in its natural habitat, then shooting it.  

Even if predator control is justifiable, I don't believe all methods are excusable. Nature may be cruel at times, but humans are not grizzlies, lions or even nomadic hunter-gatherers. We've got machines on our side, and we have the ability to behave more thoughtfully. Methods that cause undue suffering -- snare traps in particular -- are not, I feel, excusable. Some hunters, at least, agree with me. 

"I personally disagree with the snaring of the bear," said Terry Holliday, president Safari Club International's Alaska chapter told the Los Angeles Times. "It's not humane [...] If it's properly done, it's bang, and it's over, with the animal not suffering. But when you go out and you start snaring animals and whoever's doing it, say, the weather's bad and you can't get back for several days, here's a bear sitting there with a snare with a bucket on its foot."

Danielle Venton is an intern at High Country News. 

Bear hunter on Alaska’s Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, taken May 1957. Photo courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Digital Library
Photo of caribou in Denali courtesy of Jimmy Smith/Flickr.
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Feb 23, 2012 11:18 AM
A very reasoned and informative article. Many don't realize that the wildlife we see around us today is the result of many decades of careful dedicated management.
Jennifer Hane
Jennifer Hane
Feb 25, 2012 04:40 AM
I am very disappointed by this article. Predator hunters who claim to love and respect the animals they kill have a strange idea of those terms; I certainly hope they never "love and respect" me. Saying that you would never shoot the last of anything does not cut it. It isn't just the species that has value; each individual wolf or bear is a precious life that should not be lightly destroyed. Wolves, in particular, are very high up on the scale of intelligence and social behavior; that's why we get along so well with their close relatives, the dogs. How do you suppose the average American would feel if we started calling their pet dogs "renewable resources" to be "harvested"? Some of us recognize that there is no significant difference between the worth of a wolf and that of a beloved pet dog, and this kind of talk makes us sick.

First of all, even the usefulness of predator control for boosting ungulate populations is dubious. Out of 11 wolf control attempts conducted in Alaska, only 3 actually resulted in increased prey populations. (Source: Wolf: Legend, Enemy, Icon) Yes, some biologists will speak in favor of these programs, but they are often on the payroll of the game agencies, which are under pressure to do what hunters want, even if it's counter-productive. And of course, there are always other biologists who will denounce predator control as being a ridiculous notion in most of the situations where it is employed. Whether prey populations are regulated from the top down (by predators) or the bottom up (by food supplies) is still a controversial point.

Second, increased game populations are not necessarily "what is best for the whole game population." Too many caribou result in overgrazing and habitat damage. Unfortunately, human nature always wants more than it has; I suspect that hunters will never be satisfied with the game numbers. As soon as you get the caribou population up to some level, that level will become the new baseline ... even if it's unsustainable. And if the predator control DOESN'T work, the hunters will claim that it failed because you didn't kill ENOUGH wolves and bears, and the anti-predator rhetoric will escalate. Also, it's important to have a good proportion of the wild game being eaten by natural predators rather than men. Natural predators are often compelled by their physical limitations to select the weakest prey; human hunters favor the strongest and best. So herd culling by natural predators is better for the future of the game species. (See http://www.thedailybeast.co[…]f-the-weak-and-scrawny.html)

The other examples that you cite to justify predator management just aren't on the same level. Efforts to reintroduce endangered species, or remove invasive species, are really just attempts to undo damage WE did by eliminating some species (including predators), and introducing others where they shouldn't be. It would have been better if we had avoided changing things in the first place. Wolves and caribou, moose, etc. have coexisted for thousands of years; they don't need our arrogant meddling. As for wild horse management, it's only necessary because we wiped so many of their natural predators off the landscape. You'll also note that this management is done non-lethally. Horses are adored by the public, so management agencies consider kinder, but perhaps less convenient methods of adjusting their population. Large predators, sadly, aren't so lucky. On top of that, there ARE some species that we don't manage, at least not with regular lethal control. Raptors are federally protected and left alone unless they kill stock, and yet, there is no big worry that they will have unacceptable impacts on the rodent and songbird populations.

Being a vegetarian myself, I don't have to feel any guilt over eating tortured farm animals instead of free-living elk. For those who just can't handle giving up meat, it is possible to seek out more humane local farms, raise a few chickens yourself, and/or simply eat less meat. The average American probably gets far more protein than he needs anyway. Bears and wolves don't have other food options; you do.
Danielle Venton
Danielle Venton
Feb 27, 2012 10:25 AM
Hi Jennifer, I am sorry to disappoint you, but I would like to point out that my aim in the post was not to promote predator killing. Rather, I was trying to understand why, given their circumstances, some people would be in favor of it.

Granted, wolves and bears are not the only reason why many ungulate calves never see adulthood. Weather, nutrition and drowning plays a role too. And the importance of each factor can vary depending on the location and year.

Living in an area with local farms, I do have more options for what I eat than bears and wolves. But I also have more options than many Alaskans. It's not just private hunters and guides who are in favor of predator control, but also Alaskan natives and rural subsistence hunters.
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder Subscriber
Feb 28, 2012 02:11 PM
Danielle, per your response to Jennifer, I'd like to hear more, if you do a follow-up, on whether or not Alaska Natives think some methods more inhumane than others, etc. At the same time, rifles, snow machines, etc., have changed "traditional" lifestyles. Natives of today have more options, including being guides themselves, selling "extra" kills for furs to the outside world, etc.
Feb 28, 2012 05:33 PM
I agree 100% with Jennifer. The only "management" humans should be doing is rectifying the colossal damage we've done. Helping hunters and ranchers does not fall into that category. As an ethical vegetarian of 25 years, I can count the number of farm animals I've saved, but the wider impact is far larger. It's a concrete way to help the environment.
Danielle Venton
Danielle Venton
Mar 01, 2012 09:31 AM
Thank you all for your comments. I'd like to share some thoughts from Dennis Zadra, one of the guides I spoke with:

"I think the biggest misconception of these practices from people in the lower 48 is just how valuable the game population are to the residents of Alaska. It is extremely expensive to live up here, and except for residents of large cities like Anchorage and Juneau, most people have more moose, caribou, or deer in their freezers than beef or pork. I paid $5.10/gallon for diesel for my truck today. For protein, our family lives entirely on what we hunt or catch." He continues,

"Man has eaten the meat from the animals he has killed since we first walked on the earth, and to think that we now should have evolved enough that we should no longer have to do this is very narrow minded. You will find very few vegetarians in Alaska. The country is very harsh, and we do not have the opportunity to acquire food as easily as people living in milder climates.

"Unmanaged game populations see huge fluctuations of both predators and prey along with a great deal of starvation and suffering as both out-consume their food sources. Wolf packs have been seen attacking and killing bears for food because they have wiped out the caribou and moose in many areas. I have witnessed brown bears killing the largest bull moose in the herd, so the argument that they only take the weak and old is simply not true. There is nothing that a large pack of predators cannot kill as I have watched videos of lions killing elephants in Africa."
"The other major point to distinguish is that predator control is not hunting, and is not done by anyone who wants to walk into the woods and snare a bear. It is highly regulated and controlled and actually done by very few individuals. We get a ton of negative exposure because of it, but it still takes place because the need for our residents to get their meat is far greater than the need to be accepted by a few misinformed and judgmental people in the lower 48."
Mar 01, 2012 09:43 AM
Dennis' response was reasoned and thoughtful until the last paragraph. Calling detractors misinformed and judgmental will get him nowhere. The fact that he makes his living off of hunting throws a cloud over his perspective. I assume he knows that much of the predator control, paid for by taxpayers, is done to help big game sport hunters get trophies. It's not to help simple country folk get through the winter without starving. Whether desperate wolves kill big moose is simply irrelevant. Starving wolves have no other recourse than killing whatever they can find. Humans generally cannot claim that excuse. And do hungry Alaskans need expensive guides to get through the winter? I imagine not.