Palin, politics, and Alaska predator control

by Tracy Ross

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.

In 1959, when Alaska became a state, predators -- especially wolves -- weren't considered that big of a problem. Wolves had already been trapped, shot and poisoned into submission by federal wildlife agents. The state Constitution included Article VIII, which called for resources such as wildlife to be "utilized, developed, and maintained on the sustained yield principle, subject to preferences among beneficial users." The newly formed Alaska Department of Fish and Game designated wolves as furbearers, curtailed aerial killing and limited how many a person could kill in one season.

As wolves became more abundant, some moose, sheep and caribou populations began to decline. The Nelchina caribou herd -- which roams about 15,000 square miles between the Chugach Mountains and the Alaska Range -- plunged from 71,000 to 7,000 from 1960 to 1972. The moose population in Tanana Flats south of Fairbanks fell from 28,000 to 2,800 during the same period. Hunters blamed the wolves for the severe decline; it was certainly linked to predators, but other factors -- such as deep snow, unseasonably cold temperatures and overharvesting by hunters -- also played a role.

In Alaska's wildlife-management system, the governor appoints a Fish and Game commissioner as well as seven-member boards of fish and game. The two boards gather suggestions from the public, partly through more than 80 advisory committees around the state, and pass them on to the Fish and Game Department. The political pendulum is always swinging. Vic Van Ballenberghe, an Anchorage-based wildlife biologist who was appointed to the Board of Game by three governors, recalls that widespread, state-sanctioned wolf control began again (minus poisoning) under Republican Gov. Wally Hickel in 1968. (Hickel later warned, "You can't just let nature run wild.") The so-called "land-and-shoot" method, in which gunners use planes to locate wolves and then zero in on foot, was highly effective. It created artificially high moose and caribou populations, which in turn became the new baselines the state has tried to maintain ever since, says Van Ballenberghe, who used to work for the state and has written about 100 scientific articles on moose, wolves and caribou. "From that point forward, wolf control in Alaska has been dictated almost entirely by politics."

Congress imposed limits on aerial gunning with the 1971 Airborne Hunting Act and its 1972 amendments, but the law had loopholes allowing Alaska to keep doing it. In 1986, Democratic Gov. Steve Cowper, under pressure from the public, reined in wolf control while allowing hunters to continue to "land-and-shoot." In December of 1990, Hickel regained office and resumed wolf control in full force. In November 1992, for instance, Hickel's Board of Game approved a five-year aerial wolf control program in which 80 percent of the wolf population in a 20,000-square-mile area would be shot from helicopters to boost moose and caribou populations. Van Ballenberghe says both Hickel and his game commissioner, David Kelleyhouse, were radical predator-control proponents. "The commissioner's nickname was Machine Gun Kelleyhouse," he says, "because he requisitioned a fully automatic machine gun to kill wolves from a helicopter."

The demand for big game -- the meat and trophies -- comes from Alaska Natives and other rural subsistence hunters, as well as from hunters who live in cities and wealthy out-of-staters. In 1994, the Alaska Legislature passed the so-called Intensive Management Law, which "requires the Board of Game to identify moose and caribou populations that are especially important food sources for Alaskans" and provide "high levels of harvest for human consumptive use in accordance with the sustained yield principle." The same year, however, voters also elected Democrat Tony Knowles governor. Knowles came down on both sides of wolf control: He cut back some predator-control programs but took the concept to different extremes, with an effort to give wolves vasectomies. (Certified veterinarians performed vasectomies and tubal ligation on tranquilized males and females.)

Groups against aggressive predator control -- such as Defenders of Wildlife, Friends of Animals and the Alaska Wildlife Alliance -- have frequently sued the state government, charging that statistics and reasoning were flawed. They've won some cases and lost some. The public also weighed in through a series of ballot initiatives, which were met by further actions by the Legislature: In 1996, 58.5 percent of voters banned aerial gunning of wolves other than in "biological emergencies." In 1999, the Legislature overruled voters and reinstated the practice. In 2000, Gov. Knowles vetoed the Legislature's action, but the Legislature overrode his veto. Then, later that year, 53 percent of voters passed a ballot measure that prohibited private hunters from killing wolves from the air and "land-and-shoot" hunting; only government shooters would be allowed to do it. That only lasted until 2003, when a new governor, Republican Frank Murkowski, and the Legislature reinstated aerial wolf killing and "land-and-shoot" for a limited number of private hunters in certain areas.

The hunting industry's political power comes partly from the millions of dollars it generates each year. Commercial guides are required for any out-of-state hunters going after Dall sheep, mountain goats and brown bears, and they charge thousands of dollars per trip. The Alaska Professional Hunters Association lobbies all the way up to Washington, D.C., on behalf of the hunting guides, to ward off efforts in Congress to clamp down on Alaska's predator control. The Alaska Outdoor Council and Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife-Alaska fight for hunting rights and increased predator control. Formed in 1955, the AOC has 12,000 members and a "dedication to outdoor pursuits in Alaska -- hunting, fishing, trapping, and public access." The SFW-AK Facebook site lists 2,443 members along with its mission: to "assure maximum sustained yield for consumptive uses" of wildlife. Both of those groups offer special-permit hunts that can cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. And both are influenced by Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife-Utah founder Don Peay, an outspoken advocate of predator control who works with "elected officials at all levels from the community courthouse to the White House to improve and protect quality hunting and fishing on our great public lands and waters."

When Sarah Palin became governor, she appeared to give the hunting groups even more power. She appointed hunters and trappers to the Board of Game, some of them with direct ties to those hunting groups. That continues today: Current board member Teresa Albaugh was Alaska Outdoor Council president from 2005 to 2007, for instance, and member Nate Turner also serves on the Alaska Professional Hunters Association board.

In 2008, then-Gov. Palin led a well-orchestrated effort against a ballot measure called the Alaska Wolf and Bear Protection Act, which would have scaled back the aerial gunning once again. Her administration, using $400,000 approved by the Legislature, created a brochure touting the benefits of predator control and had it inserted in newspapers around the state a few weeks before the election; no doubt it helped persuade 55.6 percent of the voters to reject the measure. "The timing of the state's propaganda on wolf control was terrible," complained an Anchorage Daily News editorial.

Palin, however, repeatedly blamed outsiders for stirring the controversies. "People outside Alaska are often clueless (about) why our biologists need responsible tools for abundant game management," she said in her 2009 book, Going Rogue: An American Life. "We had to control predators ... that were decimating the moose and caribou herds that feed our communities."

The opposition to aerial gunning includes hundreds of scientists who've signed a series of letters denouncing the practice. A 2007 letter by 172 members of the Society of Mammalogists, for instance, asked Palin to "consider conservation of predators on an equal basis with the goal of producing more ungulates for hunters." On the website of Connecticut-based Friends of Animals, Alaskan author Marybeth Holleman called Palin's methods a relapse back to "our nation's frontier-days prosecution of predators."

Palin's most controversial legacy, perhaps, stems from her appointment of Denby Lloyd as commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in 2006. Lloyd proceeded to name a friend of Palin's family, Corey Rossi, as the "assistant commissioner for abundance management" (a newly created job) in December 2008 and then promoted Rossi to run the Division of Wildlife Conservation (one of the highest positions within Fish and Game) in March 2010. Before joining the Fish and Game Department, Rossi spent 20 years killing predators for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, including stints as a contractor and ultimately as a manager of that agency's lethal effort in Alaska. Rossi lacks a college degree, but says he's learned on the job and taken some relevant college courses. He also used to make money as a hunting guide and had ties to Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife. He listed Palin's parents as the top references on his résumé and says he actually employed them for about 15 years; Palin reportedly pushed for his recruitment to the state's wildlife management effort. The previous director of Wildlife Conservation -- a position that oversees 160 seasonal employees and a $20 million budget, with a mission of encouraging public involvement -- was Doug Larsen, a 22-year veteran of wildlife conservation with biology degrees from the University of Idaho and the University of Alaska.

Lloyd also named Patrick Valkenburg -- who, like Rossi, is an outspoken advocate for both bear-snaring and aerial gunning -- deputy game commissioner in December 2008. A 34-year veteran of the Department of Fish and Game, Valkenburg has decades of experience in surveying and analyzing wildlife populations. He's also a hunter and trapper and has served on the board of the Alaska Outdoor Council.

Thirty-nine former Division of Wildlife Conservation biologists or supervisors, including Vic Van Ballenberghe -- each of them averaging about 20 years of experience -- formally protested Rossi's promotion in a March 2010 letter, saying: "We are deeply concerned about the direction the Division is heading in managing Alaska's wildlife resources. Those concerns have been highlighted by the recent appointment of Mr. Corey Rossi as Director of the Division ... Mr. Rossi appears to be a single-issue advocate who lacks the educational background necessary for an entry-level biologist position ... A background with federal animal control does not qualify Mr. Rossi to lead an organization of professional wildlife biologists, research scientists, biometricians, and other wildlife professionals."

Fourteen more retired Division biologists added their names to the letter in April 2010. According to the biologists, Rossi's appointment signaled a shift in the department to "simplistic abundance management (in which) maximum production of wild game meat is the ... single, overriding objective." They said that "science, rather than politics, should be the guiding philosophy of professional leadership" and "an effective Director must also be able to lead the Division in matters such as habitat protection, biodiversity conservation, endangered species management, and watchable wildlife."

If there's one thing everyone seems to agree on, it's that Corey Rossi is a likable fellow. He's tall and lean, with a salt-and-pepper handlebar moustache and a friendly, easygoing demeanor. I saw him at the October Board of Game meeting, which lasted three days in a stuffy conference room at the Coast Hill Inn in Anchorage, and later we talked for several hours in phone interviews. He joins Valkenburg and Ted Spraker, a three-term member of the Board of Game, in defending the state's recent ramping up of predator-control efforts, including the aerial gunning and "land-and-shoot" that are now used in six rural areas that constitute about 10 percent of the state.

Rossi says Palin backed him because of his qualifications: "She was very well acquainted with who I was and what I did (in federal predator control work). I don't want to sound flippant, but this wasn't like Sarah Palin had a friend who was a taxi driver and said, 'I'm going to create a cush job.' She knew someone that happened to be an expert on these topics. ... I'd appreciate if you'd help us to bring some common sense and rational thought and objectivity and not just continue the sensationalism and stirring the pot. We understand that certain people will never like predator control. I don't mock them, I don't hate them. I'm tasked with managing for multiple uses," and that includes boosting prey populations where people desire it.

In response to the biologists' claims that his agency takes actions without sound science, Rossi points out that the Department of Fish and Game has posted more than a hundred studies on its website, supporting the need for his methods. Spraker -- a 28-year veteran of Fish and Game -- made a similar point during the board meeting, explaining why he believes a slim majority of Alaska voters now seems to favor aerial gunning: "Let me tell you why sentiment changed. The only time the public is going to support something like this is if you show good science."

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."

All three men cite cases where, in their view, aggressive killing of predators has dramatically helped moose and caribou. In Game Unit 20A, which includes the Tanana Flats south of Fairbanks, predator control has had a "long, lingering" positive effect for both predator and prey, Rossi says. The agency began a campaign of aerial wolf killing there in February 1976, on behalf of a moose population that had steeply declined; by April 1982, it had removed 337 wolves (174 by Fish and Game, 163 by private hunters). The moose population increased from 2,500 to 6,600, and caribou went from 2,200 to 7,335. Another round of wolf control in the 1990s allowed the moose population to increase to 15,000. With more prey to feed on, the wolf population eventually rebounded to slightly higher levels than before the effort began. "We removed the predators, and the moose bounced back to the point that we now have more moose than we need," says Rossi. "When we scaled back predator control, the wolves rebounded, too. Now we have a balance of both prey and predators but at a higher yield."

The recent "experimental" bear-snaring in Game Unit 16, which Valkenburg designed, will have similar results, according to Valkenburg and Rossi. The moose in 16 used to be "very productive," Rossi says, "producing 150 calves per 100 cows, but out of 150 calves born in the spring, by November, only eight to 10 were surviving." The wildlife department looked at nutrition, bad weather and the number of calves drowning in rivers as possible factors, but found that the vast majority of the calves' deaths were caused by predation by bears and wolves. In a calf mortality study, Rossi explains, "you mark them (with a radio collar) and buzz in there right after they die and figure out what happened really quickly." The agency first targeted the wolves: Between 2004 and 2009, through aerial gunning, licensed private shooters removed 195 wolves in Unit 16, and conventional hunters and trappers were allowed to remove another 131 wolves. That increased moose calf survival rate only a bit, to around 16 per 100 cows. So "ultimately we realized that bears were the problem," says Rossi.

Critics like Mark Richards, head of Alaska Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, who ekes out a subsistence living in the bush, say that factors like bad weather are more important than predators in Unit 16. Richards cites an agency study, which found that during the 1980s and 1990s in Unit 16, record snowfall caused a major die-off of moose. "The survival rates during those deep snow years were down at 35 percent for bulls and 70 percent for calves," says Richards. "Basically, what that study concluded was that more than half the time, because of the weather patterns in that area, we get such levels of deep heavy snows that the moose population sees moderate to heavy die-offs, and that it's likely this has always gone on." Some biologists say that such areas should not be considered for intensive predator-prey management.

Even Spraker says he has reservations about the bear-snaring program in Unit 16. He wonders whether a more precise aerial gunning of black bears might be more effective: The Department of Fish and Game knows the moose calving areas and which bears hang around them, so "if you wanted to really be effective in a short time, you'd take a helicopter and humanely dispatch the big bears that are living on calves. That may sound horrible, but to me that's a surgical approach with a predictable outcome, whereas if you're out there snaring and trapping bears, it doesn't make good sense. ... There are certain bears that really operate off calving grounds -- calf-killing machines. Others spend their life eating blueberries. It makes no sense to harvest bears not in calving areas."

Rossi and Spraker both defend the Board of Game's 2008 decision allowing Fish and Game or other employees to use carbon monoxide cartridges to kill wolf puppies belonging to a single pack that was ravaging a threatened caribou herd on the Southern Alaska Peninsula. The agency says that the most effective time to kill wolves is during caribou calving season, when the wolves are focused on the herd. But that's also the time when pups are in the dens. Biologists considered capturing the pups but worried about possible rabies. So in the spring of 2009, after shooting the adult wolves, they placed a small gas cartridge at the entrance of the den to kill two wolf pups, Rossi says. (They also shot 14 wolf pups in the head in 2008, to prevent them from starving to death after their mothers were killed by aerial gunning.) "We decided, rather than fly all over the peninsula killing wolves from the air, we'd target wolves right where the caribou were calving and kill them during the calving season," says Rossi. The caribou calf population rebounded: On average, 39 calves per 100 cows survived after the first spring, 46 per 100 cows after the second spring, and 48 last year.

Environmentalists, predictably, were especially outraged over the gassing of wolf puppies; Rossi says it was the most humane way of killing them. "No one likes to kill puppies, and we don't emphasize that we do it. But animal shelters kill 4 million (dog) puppies and kittens a year (and) everyone knows that the animal shelters aren't mean."

Spraker scoffs at the charge that hard-line groups such as Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife give orders to the Board of Game. "If they have a good idea, we'll pass the proposal; if it's bad, we won't pass it. We're not a 'boy' for anybody.

Absolutely not." He says the fact that the board is composed entirely of hunters and trappers, with no representative for non-consumptive wildlife purposes, makes sense: "Ninety percent of what we do deals with game management. We've had wildlife photographers on the board before, and they get bored pretty quickly. If you have a board that looks out for the health and welfare of the resource first, then you provide opportunities for photographers and tourism."

"Predator control is not designed to be fair," Rossi says. "It's not fair chase (an ethical standard for hunting). We're supposed to be as efficient as possible."

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.

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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.

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