On the day we fly to Game Management Unit 16, the sun is shining and the air is crisp and the mountains glint from their summits. Out the side window of the Alaska Wildlife Trooper Supercub, 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, also known as Denali, gleams through a ribbon of cumulous. Up front, past Sgt. Mark Agnew's helmet, another snow-draped peak fills the windshield. It's bigger than anything I've seen in my home state of Colorado. But according to Agnew, my pilot-guide, the hulking white massif is too puny by Alaskan standards for anyone to have bothered naming it.
"That thing?" shouts the 15-year veteran of the wildlife protection arm of the Alaska State Troopers. "That's a nothing mountain! A little nubbin not even on the map." And then -- as if to emphasize the fact that, compared to any tangle of wilderness in the Lower 48, we really are in the last truly wild place in the U.S. -- he adds, "And see that glacier pouring off of it? Probably one of thousands!"
There the low fog breaks, Agnew punches the throttle toward spruce-and-alder foothills that rise from the shores of Beluga Lake. We dive sharply, skim the tops of willows that have turned red as the autumn edges into October, and bump to a landing among rocks the size of microwave ovens.
The only signs of human life are several orange pylons (demarking, roughly, an airstrip), a fire ring, and a few tell-tale tracks of the fat, balloon-like tires that most bush planes land on in Alaska. I've persuaded Agnew to bring me out here so that I can see the terrain of a controversial bear-killing program run by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The Beluga Lake camp is one of five locations where, from April 15 to Oct. 15 since 2009, eight carefully selected, specially trained fur trappers have baited plastic buckets with dogfood and waited in nearby alders for the bears to come sniffing. Each bucket contains a snare; when a bear reaches in, a wire snatches its paw and holds it. Both grizzlies and black bears have been captured, but only black bears have been "dispatched," sanitized phrasing for when the trapper emerges from his hiding spot and shoots.
Hunters are allowed to set bait for black bears all across Alaska, under limits set by the Department of Fish and Game, but the snaring in Game Management Unit 16 is unusual. In the first two years of this program, 143 black bears were lured in, snared and shot (usually in the head). In the same time span, 279 black bears were killed through other so-called "predator control" methods, and private hunters enjoying loosened bag limits killed more than 600 black bears in the 12,255-square-mile unit. This is primarily an attempt to boost the local moose population, which has been hammered by bears, so that hunters can continue harvesting moose, and secondarily so that a few non-lethal wildlife-lovers can glimpse moose in the field. So far, the bear-snaring program is considered "experimental," with its efficacy and humaneness debated in both the hunting and non-hunting communities. It's one more sign that Alaska has the most aggressive predator-management program in the nation. And it's also part of Sarah Palin's legacy.
From the time Palin became governor in 2007 until she resigned in July of 2009, she took bold action against not only black bears, but also wolves and grizzlies. With backing from powerful anti-predator lobbies like the Alaska Outdoor Council and the Alaskan arm of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, she tried to reinstate a wolf bounty and aerial gunning of grizzlies (efforts that failed); she also authorized the gassing of wolf puppies in their dens using poisonous carbon monoxide (which is still allowed today). Near the end of her term, she placed veteran predator-killers in key positions of power, where they remain. And she authorized the bait-, snare-, and kill-bears program, justifying her old high-school nickname of "Sarah Barracuda."
According to some people who've seen bear-snaring in action, as soon a bear is caught by the wire, it jerks frantically trying to free itself. Though the program's supporters say the snares are not painful as long as the bears don't struggle for too long, both black bears and grizzlies have been known to maim themselves while gripped by the wire. Black bears reportedly grunt and moan in a way that sounds like a person crying. At least three grizzlies that were accidentally snared had to be euthanized.
The program is being tested in Unit 16 in preparation for extending it to other areas in Alaska, but by the time I show up, most of the trappers involved have gone home for the winter. Agnew and I gnaw on sticks of his moose jerky, and I tell him that bear-snaring sounds exciting -- sort of like ice fishing, but with guns instead of rods and augers. Agnew confirms my suspicion, admitting that if a sow with cubs gets caught in a snare, the cubs often go ballistic. When that happens, he says, it's often safest to shoot the cubs first and then the mother.
With decades of information-gathering like this, Alaska arguably has more knowledge of predator-prey dynamics than any other state. It is knowledge that other states struggling with their own predator issues can learn from, and it includes some surprises that wildlife-lovers may not want to accept. Singling out and killing a sole pack of wolves (including their puppies), for instance, can almost immediately boost a caribou population in danger of extinction. But actions like these are inciting a war between predator-control advocates and those who -- for a variety of reasons -- oppose such tactics. The science informs the politics, but the politics threaten to overrule the science.