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.
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