A group of scientists has backed a federal plan to restrict the trapping and gunning down of bears and wolves in Alaska’s wildlife refuges, in the face of bitter opposition from the state government.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has proposed an overhaul of hunting regulations for Alaska’s 16 national wildlife refuges, which span nearly 77m acres of wilderness in the state.
The new rules would effectively ban “non-subsistence” slaughter of predators within the refuges without a sound scientific reason.
Practices to be outlawed include the killing of bear cubs or their mothers, the controversial practice of bear baiting and the targeting of wolves and coyotes during the spring and summer denning season.
Anyone hoping to take a plane or helicopter to shoot a bear will also be unable to do so. These changes have been backed by a group of 31 leading scientists who said the current hunting laws hurt some of the “most iconic yet persecuted species in North America: grizzly bears, black bears and wolves”.
In a letter sent for the USFWS’s public comment process, the biologists and ecologists from across the US point out that research shows that killing the predators of moose and caribou does very little to boost their numbers.
“Alaska’s many-decades program of statewide carnivore persecution has failed to yield more ungulates for human hunters,” the letter states. “Furthermore, the methods of predator persecution are seen as problematic by a clear majority of Alaska’s citizens.”
Alaska stepped up the trapping and shooting of predator animals after the Republican governor Frank Murkowski gained power in 2002. His successors, including Sarah Palin, have all supported a policy of “intensive management” that removes wolves and bears with the goal of boosting moose and caribou numbers for hunters.
The state has increasingly clashed with federal agencies over this policy. The situation escalated after the Alaska board of game removed a 122 sq mile buffer zone protecting wolves around the Denali national park – the US’s largest national park – and allowed the baiting of bears and the use of lights to rouse hibernating bears so that they can be shot as they emerge.
Alaska recently offered its support to a moose hunter who won a supreme court appeal against the federal government over his use of a hovercraft in an ecologically sensitive area.
“We have a fiscal crisis here in Alaska but we see a large amount of money spent on ineffective hunting policies,” said Francis Mauer, retired wildlife biologist at the USFWS and one of the letter’s signatories.
“The hunting guys have total control of the board of game, there’s no balance there. The state has aggressively increased the killing of predators to the point where anyone can kill 10 wolves a day for 345 days of the year.
“This kind of approach isn’t supported by the science, nor is it legitimate for these refuges to be converted into areas for hunting. We have seen wolf and bear numbers reduce in some areas at a time where there is increasing scientific evidence showing the value of them in maintaining healthy ecosystems.”
Alaska’s administration has said it “strongly opposes” the new USFWS regulations, arguing that they are federal overreach, undermine the state’s ability to manage wildlife populations and hurt native populations who rely upon moose and caribou for food.
“Ultimately, the new regulations would have significant impacts on Alaskans, particularly those living a subsistence way of life,” said Bruce Dale, director of the division of wildlife conservation.
This article was first published by The Guardian on 29 Mar 2016.