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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • EVENTS AND ANNUAL FUND COORDINATOR
    The Events and Annual Fund Coordinator is responsible for managing and coordinating the Henry's Fork Foundation's fundraising events for growing the membership base, renewing and...
  • EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Position Description: The Education Director is the primary leader of Colorado Canyons Association's (CCA) education programs for students and adults on the land and rivers...
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...