Sarah Palin, McNeil River & Alaska's War on Bears
Bill Sherwonit / AK Voices / Anchorage Daily News / July 19, 2009
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The hypocrisy of our soon-to-be ex-governor shows no bounds. Even as Sarah Palin tweets happily about “mama bears” at McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, her appointees at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game oversee the most awfully audacious bear-kill program since at least statehood and possibly in Alaska’s history.
For those few who don’t know about McNeil, this state-managed sanctuary on the west side of Cook Inlet protects Alaska’s - and likely the world’s - largest gathering of brown bears. Each year, dozens of bears congregate here to feed on salmon, while watched by a small gathering of people (go to the state’s McNeil web page or simply do an Internet search for McNeil River). It is an amazing place that has been known to transform people’s attitudes toward bears. I doubt, however, it will do anything to change our governor, who has, in her shortened term, taken Alaska’s war on wolves and bears to unprecedented depths. At first merely shocked, I quickly became appalled while reading in Saturday’s paper about Palin’s McNeil “tweet” about a female bear with cubs: “Protect & provide for her young; She sees danger? She brazenly rises up on strong hind legs, growls Don’t Touch My Cuba & the species survives.”
No doubt Sarah sees herself in the bear. And wants others to see her so. In one respect, she’s dead-on target: Palin is as brazen as they come.
In mulling over Palin’s comment, I flashed on another image: that of our governor posed beside a brown bear rug that was fashioned from the animal her father killed. This is what our governor represents: dead bears. If there is one person who should be banned at McNeil, that someone is Sarah Palin. Not to mention her wolf- and bear-killing (and proud of it) dad, Chuck Heath, who accompanied our soon-to-be ex-governor to McNeil.
As it happens, a couple days before reading about Sarah and McNeil I contacted Fish and Game personnel to get an update on the black bear control program in Game Management Unit 16, across Cook Inlet from Anchorage. For those who need reminding, the state has determined that Unit 16’s black bears kill way too many moose. So they’ve established an unparalleled “control” (read: bear kill) program. Wildlife managers would love to kill as many as 60 percent of the unit’s 2,500 to 3,000 black bears, though they admit it’s unlikely they’ll attain their goal. If that’s not a slaughter, what is?
To get as close to their goal as possible, the Board of Game and Department of Fish and Game have pulled out all the stops: they’re allowing the use of “support” helicopters to supply the camps of bear killers. And they’re allowing the troops to not only bait black bears, but to snare them, an all-time hideous low in our state’s predator-control history. Oh, and did I mention that members of the public have been invited to join this “control” effort? (All of this reminds me of a comment Game Board member Ben Grussendorf made at the March meeting when this plan was cooked up: “Man, this is a jihad against black bears by paramilitary groups.”)
All of this is happening right now, while the human residents of Anchorage are enjoying our summer of sun and warmth, blissfully unaware of the carnage going on across the inlet.
Numbers can only hint at the violence being done to bears in Unit 16 right now, but here’s what I’ve been able to find out. More than 120 black bears have been killed in the control program as of late last week; of those, 76 were baited and snared. The department notes that “in MOST cases [my emphasis] the bears have been in snares less than 12 hours.” So what about the others, I wonder.
Here’s a thought: can you imagine the awful panic, the terror, that must be experienced by a family of bears if an adult female with spring cubs (those born this year) happened to get snared and held for up to 12 hours or more? And what if another adult, say a male brown bear, happened to come along while the mom is trapped?
Not to worry about cubs getting eaten or otherwise dying. This control program encourages participants to kill all bears they encounter, including female bears with cubs - and even the cubs themselves. The suffering they may experience before being killed is of no account. And yes, I’m among those who believe that other animals besides humans suffer pain and distress. Department officials say they can’t yet provide a breakdown by sex and age of the bears killed so far, but you can safely bet that females with cubs and their offspring will be among the casualties.
I wonder what that fiercely protective mother Sarah Palin thinks about all this. Apparently it doesn’t bother her a whit, since her people are the ones running this program.
More numbers: though untargeted, at least five brown bears, apparently all of them juvenile males, have been trapped. Three were released, the others “euthanized.” When I asked the question “How do you euthanize a snared brown bear?” department spokesman Bruce Bartley responded, “You shoot it.”
The snaring, you’ll be happy to know (certainly it made my day) is being done in places where there is little or no human traffic. And so far “there has been no contact with members of the public at any of the snare sites.” Which is exactly how Fish and Game wants it, of course. They don’t want us ordinary folks to see what’s going on.
My main contact in these matters was initially Tony Kavalok, area management biologist for Unit 16. But after a couple of emails, I was informed that Kavalok wouldn’t be answering any more questions about the control program, by order of Corey Rossi, who Palin appointed last winter as Alaska’s new “assistant commissioner for abundance management.” Translated into more understandable language, his job is to make sure there are way more moose and caribou for hunters to kill and way fewer wolves and bears to compete with us humans. Rossi has assigned Bruce Bartley to be “the official conduit for transferring information about the Unit 16 project to the public” apparently to “provide consistent reporting [in other words, make sure the department gets its official story line straight] and be respectful of the short supply of staff time.” I’ve never had a problem in the past talking to area management biologists; after all, it is their job to know what’s happening in their assigned units. But maybe this bear-control stuff is a little too sensitive for someone at Kavalok’s level.
Oh, and by the way, Rossi adds, Bruce Bartley is out of town, but he should be able to provide updated numbers - and answer the questions of concerned citizens - after the snaring program ends in mid-August.
I should also mention the state has approved a bear-snaring program for both black bears and grizzlies near McGrath, but I haven’t yet learned anything about that one. Maybe other interested persons can bug either Bruce Bartley (email@example.com) or Corey Rossi himself (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more details about the McGrath or Unit 16 bear-kill efforts. Their email addresses, of course, are a matter of public record; besides, the state’s email address “formula” is easy to figure out. I’m only providing a shortcut here.
Wait, I’m not finished.
As bad as things seem to be going for black bears in Unit 16, there seems to be even worse news locally. This past week I also contacted Rick Sinnott, wildlife manager for the greater Anchorage area, to get his assessment of bear-human relations so far this summer. Because there have been few media reports of conflicts, I wasn’t surprised by his comment, “The number of bear calls is way down this summer.”
But what followed nearly floored me: “This is probably because so many black bears were shot in Chugach State Park last fall and this spring,” Sinnott explained. “Last I looked the number taken by hunters was 66 black bears, but I’m not sure all the hunter reports were in. In addition, 21 black bears were shot in DLP [defense of life and property] last summer and 1 black bear was killed by a vehicle. The [Chugach] body count was about twice as high as previous high counts and several times higher than 1-2 decades ago. I’m not too alarmed by this yet, but we’re going to watch the harvest closely this year and will consider closing down the hunting season if we anticipate a similarly high harvest.”
He went on to add, “Despite the lower-than-normal number of calls this summer, the number of bears shot in DLP seems high, but there’s a reason. Five bears have been shot, but one was a sow with 2 young cubs and another had 3 young cubs. The five cubs had to be euthanized [in these instances presumably by lethal injection rather than a bullet to the head as in Unit 16], as we had no place to send them. That brings the total DLP kill to 10 so far this summer [as of July 16]. ALL OF THE DLPS WERE CAUSED BY BEARS GETTING INTO GARBAGE OR OTHER HUMAN FOODS [my emphasis].”
A little arithmetic shows that in about a year’s time, we human residents of the larger Anchorage area have killed nearly 100 black bears, out of a population of 300 or so. Nearly one in three! Rick may not be alarmed, but I certainly am. I’ve been trying to track down what’s considered sustainable human harvest figures for black bear populations and so far have come up with 10 to 15 percent in some parts of the Lower 48. I’ve sent emails to Rick and some other bear biologists for local sustainable harvest rates, but haven’t yet heard back. But there’s no way any bear population can sustain a 33-percent human kill for very long.
I’m reminded that several locals - Alaska Bear Tales author Larry Kaniut among them - have called for our own little war on bears, right here in Anchorage and adjacent Chugach Park. And I wonder if some locals have stirred up interest in the Chugach hunt, accounting for this past year’s unusually high kill. Whether there’s an organized effort or not, way too many black bears are being killed unless the goal is to eradicate them, which some folks clearly would prefer.
The other point to emphasize is this: as Sinnott notes, all of the black bears shot in Anchorage this summer were baited to their deaths, by irresponsible people who left garbage and other attractants in their neighborhoods. And at least some of those residents also contributed to the deaths of five tiny cubs that posed a danger to absolutely no one.
Contrary to what Kaniut and others of his philosophical bent argue, Anchorage’s bear-human conflicts are largely caused by problem people, not problem bears. Human ignorance, laziness, and stubbornness all contribute to the problem, as does the idea that we humans have special rights and other critters be damned - or at least killed - if they interfere with our desires. This is what drives Alaska’s escalating predator-control programs; it’s also what drives the unnecessary slaughter of bears in our city.
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