Palin, politics, and Alaska predator control

  • Members of the Grant Creek wolf pack close in on a moose and her newborn calf in Denali National Park. In the end, the wolves got the baby moose.

  • Wolf control efforts in Alaska.

    (c) Alaska Department of Fish and Game
  • Caribou on the Arctic tundra with the Endicott Mountains of the Brooks Range in the background.

  • A grizzly bear sow and cubs approach caribou in Denali National Park .

  • Setting a bear snare.

    (c) Alaska Department of Fish and Game
  • Groups against aggressive predator control have used advertising, lawsuits and public-records searches -- turning up photos like these showing wolf-control efforts -- to sway public opinion. Photos show dead wolves slung from a helicopter and other fresh kills being handled on the ground.

    (c) Alaska Department of Fish and Game
  • Sarah Palin's book Going Rogue, on sale at a Sitka, Alaska, bookstore with a note that all profits would go to Defenders of Wildlife to stop aerial wolf hunting.

    James Poulon, Daily Sitka Sentinel/AP
  • Corey Rossi, working on avian flu testing, did predator control for the federal government, and now runs the Division of Wildlife Conservation for Alaska.

    (c) Alaska Department of Fish and Game
  • Ted Spraker (in blue) was part of a crew in the late 1990s moving wolves in an attempt to keep them from killing caribou on the Alaska Range.

    Jon Little, Anchorage Daily News, AP
  • Counting caribou from the air.

    (c) Alaska Department of Fish and Game

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.

Wendy Beye
Wendy Beye says:
Feb 21, 2011 10:27 AM
A thoughtful article. Predator/prey issues are never black and white, and politics always plays a greater role than it should. The Montana Dept of Fish, Wildlife and Parks is embarking this winter on a study of elk mortality in the Bitterroot Range on the western edge of the state. Information gathered will be used to develop a predator control plan, which will no doubt be controversial.
Wade Willis
Wade Willis says:
Feb 21, 2011 12:04 PM
A good "first look" at the politics of predator control. When you look deeper into the issue though, one aspect this article did not address well is the fact that politics also drives the overexploitation of moose and caribou by the hunting industry. Game managers are under intense presure to "allow" harvest rates that are unsustainable. Add to the mix a "for profit" commercial hunting industry with a world wide client base, and you have an unending appetite for Alaska's game resources. Every current predator control program can be traced back to overhunting in the decade preceding the so called "need" for killing wolves and bears.

That is one component of the debate that must be addressed. Managing human harvest and priorizing harvest for those that need it most, Alaskan's that rely on the meat to feed their families, is one of the "tools" in the toolbox. To date, the predator control laws have removed that tool from the hands of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Andrew Sipocz
Andrew Sipocz says:
Feb 22, 2011 03:12 PM
The following statement is false and insulting. Biologists are well aware of predator/prey relations and do read and keep up with this literature (including gray literature such as studies done by state and federal agencies and graduate students). Valkenburg is clueless. Also, the longest running and most rigorous study on wolf and prey science is being conducted by Michigan Tech (formerly by Purdue Univ. - by one of my old professors) and is occurring on Isle Royale in Lake Superior. That's in Michigan. I can't believe a reporter would include such a quote without some sort of followup by one of the supposed ignorant Alaskan biologists. This is outrageous.

So much of what is written in this article is patently false on its face. Does HCN employ any sort of fact checking? Absolute garbage.

Valkenburg says that until wolves were reintroduced in the Lower 48, Alaska was the only place in the U.S. with a full complement of predators. "So the work we did in Fish and Game was groundbreaking in figuring out relationships between wolves and moose and caribou. Biologists in general are not exposed to that literature. Most were trained during a time when people thought predation was not an important influence on ungulate populations. In Alaska, we've found that ungulate populations are limited by predators, but most biologists have a very strong bias in the opposite direction. Biologists are no different than any other group of people -- they have their values and their biases, and so, a lot of it is a philosophical debate, not a scientific debate. Many biologists just don't feel that it's legitimate to shoot wolves or bears or reduce wolf and bear numbers to make more moose for people to eat. But ultimately it's a policy decision. It's not a scientific decision."

Understanding predator/prey relationships requires an understanding of more than whether or not removing predators increases a prey's population. That is kindergarten science. Rather an understanding of evolution and its interaction and ultimate control over ecology is required. There are many nuances in determining how many predator and how many prey animals can be removed and by what manner. Vegetation ecology, parasite ecology, breeding strategies by prey species; all of this and much more must be considered if long term health of natural and human systems are to be maintained.

Jami Wright
Jami Wright says:
Feb 23, 2011 10:24 AM
Great article for those of us who are fresh to "Palin Politics" in Alaska. The number of issues that we, as humans, create for ourselves never ceases to amaze me. A dependence on continuous culls is disturbing, expensive and wasteful. An interesting article published by Izilwane poses issues surrounding wolves in Idaho as human issues, not wolf issues. Check it out at
Sandy Doumas
Sandy Doumas says:
Feb 24, 2011 10:43 AM
Yay, Andrew! I had a really difficult time reading this article because it was so biased, and the paragraph you included was particularly difficult to read. The author quoted Valkenburg with no followup, letting those ignorant statements stand. Biologists and other scientists do NOT have the luxury of being like "any other group of people." They might have "values and biases", but their work is evidence-based, and they will never be respected as scientists if those biases are part of their work. You will be thrashed thoroughly by your peers if you don't have the evidence. Not in journalism, apparently. Just find someone to quote, and voila! HCN, you can do better.

If AK Fish and Game did "groundbreaking work" in in "figuring out relationships between wolves and moose and caribou", get it published in a peer-reviewed journal, let it stand up to replication and further testing. Why are you hiding your studies from the scientific community? Andrew is correct, state and federal agencies make their documents available to the public, so biologists have been exposed to that literature. If the studies were ignored, perhaps biologists had good reason.

Biologists and other scientists are not perfect and I'm not trying to portray them as such. And science does take time to resolve conflicting study results with more studies and testing. But over time, multiple lines of evidence will expose as much as we can know. So don't bother throwing around single studies that were found to be wrong. That is the power of science, not its weakness. False conclusions are exposed as false, by other scientists.
william huard
william huard says:
Mar 09, 2011 04:43 PM
Tracy thinks that bear snaring is exciting? I hope she doesn't own any pets
Jesse Tigner
Jesse Tigner says:
Mar 19, 2011 05:53 PM
Can't quite figure out the outrage this sparked in some commentators. Sure the article wasn't perfect and some clearly BS statements were printed and were allowed to slide un-countered. But, the fact of the matter is that there's a huge literature of predator-prey dynamics available from studies across the continent, even including some an AK DFG biologists seems to think aren't.
The science isn't really in dispute within the academic community: more predators = few ungulates. This has been shown again and again with elk, deer, moose, and caribou; across the western US, Canada, and Alaska. Further, sufficient work has been done to date to estimate predator density thresholds beyond which ungulate populations remain flat or decline. True variability in species’ density at fine spatial scales may be related to a myriad of reasons including vegetation communities, or habitat productivity, etc.; and trends are driven along temporal scales by a range of broad scale factors such as long-cycle climatic patterns and climate change, or human land uses. But the fact remains that more predators = fewer prey.
Often killing predators isn’t palatable or easy (the idea purported by the author that killing a single wolf pack to save a caribou is just plain mis-informed; see work done in the Little Smokey are of Alberta), but it is often the most effective way to bring ungulate species up. Bringing ungulate populations up or predator populations down to what level is a matter of public debate and opinion, and delineating target densities has never been easy. But that’s the goal and the purpose of wildlife management. And that’s the very goal AK DFG is tasked with. Regardless, don’t fool yourself into thinking the science is not there or that a manager’s thinking is flawed just because you want the facts to say something they don’t.
And really, what’s the big deal? Look at the map showing the management zones. It’s not really even that much land under these management regimes… There’s a lot more bush out there with a whole hell of a lot of bears and wolves.
Jodi Peterson
Jodi Peterson says:
Mar 24, 2011 10:18 AM
From Cliff Judkins: As the Chairman of the Alaska Board of Game I would like people to realize that a predator control in Alaska is driven by state statutes that require action by the Board of Game when certain parameters are reached; that the Department staff develop a plan in each case is based on the best science available and has well defined goals, and that only a small portion of Alaska's land mass is undergoing predator control.