With Rossi and Palin's Board of Game leading the push for more aggressive predator control, the state has recently engaged in disputes and court battles with the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, because the Board of Game wants to kill more wolves in or near national parks and federal wildlife refuges.
Government agents kill several hundred wolves per year in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming largely to protect livestock. But Alaska takes predator control to extremes not seen in other states or Canada: While bear baiting is legal in seven other states, including Idaho, Utah and Wyoming, for instance, bear snaring (as a form of predator control) is legal only in Maine and Alaska. Nowhere in Canada or the U.S. is bear snaring legal where both black bears and grizzlies co-exist.
In Alaska, in rough numbers, "abundance" means somewhere between 8,000 and 11,000 wolves; 200,000 to 300,000 black bears; 30,000 grizzlies; 150,000 moose and 900,000 caribou. Hunters and trappers each year, on average, kill 1,000 to 1,500 wolves; 2,500 black bears; 1,600 grizzlies; 7,500 moose and 27,000 caribou. The special "predator control" programs -- whose methods generate so much controversy -- kill only a few hundred wolves and bears per year, though that total might increase as the program gets more aggressive.
Wade Willis, a hunter and former biologist for both the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says the Board of Game has held at least a couple of "emergency" meetings over the past year, to discuss bear snaring and other policy shifts with little attempt to involve the public. Willis, who also used to work for Defenders of Wildlife and is now the Alaska director of the Science Now Project, a group advocating for "biological facts to take precedence" in wildlife management, helped organize opposition to a proposal to expand bear-snaring statewide, because he thinks there would be inadequate state oversight. "The board was considering allowing people as young as 16 to go on helicopter flights into the backcountry to snare and kill black bears," Willis says. If the snaring were expanded and opened to the general public, due to a lack of enforcement staff, that might make it easier for poachers to kill grizzly bears and/or trappers operating within the program to "kill bears and never report it," Willis says. Even Ron Ellis of the Alaska Trappers Association, who killed several black bears in the first bear-snaring program, said the expanded proposal needed refining. "That's how scary it was," Willis says. "Even the Trappers Association recognized that it came out of nowhere."
Priscilla Feral, president of the national Friends of Animals, sees a particularly offensive good-old-boy culture leading Alaska's predator control. During a February 2010 Board of Game meeting, she returned from a lunch break and discovered that someone had placed a large glass jar -- labeled "Contribute here to get Priscilla Feral laid" -- on the table where Fish and Game leaflets and books were displayed. She never learned who was responsible; Vic Van Ballenberghe, who also attended the meeting, confirms her account. "This is what you see if you get out of line in Alaska," Feral says. "People have shot out the windows of the Friends of Animals office in Anchorage. They'll put a 'rape fund' on the table at the Board of Game meeting ... (It's) a thinly veiled threat to squash the voice of opposition."
Valkenburg retired in January, but said in his resignation letter that he would like to help the state government fight the longstanding federal subsistence laws that impede predator control on federal lands such as parks and refuges. The current governor, Sean Parnell, a Republican who rose from lieutenant governor when Palin quit and then won the office in last November's election, has made a few other changes. He reportedly told the board to postpone a decision on statewide bear-snaring until next year, and on Dec. 22, he appointed a 31-year-old woman, Cora Campbell, as the new commissioner of Game. (Denby Lloyd resigned following a highly publicized arrest for DUI.) Campbell, who has a degree in education from Pacific Lutheran University, has roots in the fishing industry and served as a fisheries policy adviser under Sarah Palin from 2007 to 2009. She says one of her primary goals is to "restore trust in the Fish and Game."
Looking ahead, backcountry trapper Richards says: "Alaska is still very much as wild as its image, in terms of public opinion on hunting and trapping and predator control. While it's true that most Alaskans don't hunt, we still have one of the highest percentages of hunters per capita. ... I think Alaska is still split fairly evenly as far as overall public opinion on aerial wolf control by private pilots."
Steve Heimel, who hosts Alaska Public Radio's Talk of Alaska, is one of many who think that Alaska's trend toward more aggressive predator control will continue. "The majority of Alaskans are either indifferent or not paying any attention to (predator control)," Heimel says. "They feel that it's a fait accompli and that they are totally powerless in the fight against it. And that's just the people who think about it at all. The majority have no idea what's going on ... because of other issues like the economy, ANWR (the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is constantly sought after by oil drillers), and, most recently, the endangered species issue." Several cold-dependent species in Alaska are becoming endangered due to global warming, Heimel points out, including beluga whales, walrus, polar bears and two ice-dependent seals.
At the Game Management Unit 16 bear-snaring camp, Sgt. Agnew and I linger until the 30-degree October air makes us shiver. As we lift off, skimming the lower flanks of Mount Susitna, we only see four or five bears (blacks and grizzlies). Agnew says most of the local bears have left in search of hibernation dens. He tells me another amazing Alaska tale: Two weeks earlier, a hunter reported seeing 125 black bears on a single south-facing slope, all gorging themselves on a bumper crop of blueberries. I have to wonder how long that kind of abundance will last.
This coverage is supported by contributors to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund.
Tracy Ross spent six years off and on in Alaska during the 1990s, including stints in a cabin in the bush and working as a Denali National Park backcountry ranger. She's visited Alaska often since then and has written extensively about the state's wildlife, politics and culture. Her essay "The Source of All Things" -- weaving her outdoor experiences together with childhood abuse by her stepfather -- won a National Magazine Award in 2009; she's expanded that essay into a book, also titled The Source of All Things, which hits bookstores in early March. She lives in the mountains near Boulder, Colo.
Correction and clarification: This story's mention of Wade Willis has been tuned, after the initial publication in the High Country News magazine and on this website: The initial version misinterpreted something Willis, of the Science Now Project, said in an interview with our writer, Tracy Ross. Discussing how the Alaska Board of Game was considering an expansion of bear-snaring, Willis said that if it were permitted and opened to the general public, due to a lack of enforcement staff, that might make it easier for poachers to kill grizzly bears and/or trappers operating within the program to "kill bears and never report it." Willis did not say the Board of Game was considering allowing people to kill grizzlies without reporting it.