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Alaska Officials Kill 94 Brown Bears in Effort to Increase Caribou Herd

The Realblog with Stephanie Mallory

Alaska Officials Kill 94 Brown Bears in Effort to Increase Caribou Herd

Posted 2023-06-28  by  Stephanie Mallory

The Mulchatna caribou herd has dropped from 200,000 in 1997 to just 12,000 currently

In an effort to increase Alaska’s Mulchatna caribou herd, state wildlife officials killed 94 brown bears in the region between May 10 and June 4.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) says the bears were taken in the herd’s calving grounds as part of an intensive management program to increase the Mulchatna caribou herd, which has declined 96 percent since 1997.

The Mulchatna herd totaled 200,000 caribou in 1997 and dropped to around 12,000 in 2017, where the population remains. Five black bears and five wolves were also taken using aerial methods.

Rick Steiner, a retired professor and environmental scientist, told Alaska News Source that the predator control effort could be one of America’s largest government-backed killings of brown bears in history. Although he’s against the recent bear kill, he says it does offer an opportunity to possibly study the effects of the removal.

“Lay out a monitoring plan to see what happens, how the Mulchatna herd responds or not, what other predators come into the system, whether this actually causes some benefit, how long that lasts,” Steiner said. “It’s probably a five or 10-year study that needs to be done now.”

An ADF&G press release states, “The department does not have population concerns for these removals of bears and wolves. Bear and wolf populations are healthy in western Alaska. The removals of wolves and bears in the western spring calving control area are occurring in a relatively small area that is surrounded by healthy, intact habitat in state and federal lands where control activities are not occurring.”

Steiner disagrees and said wolf control efforts in the area for 12 years haven’t helped.

“I have a feeling, a strong feeling, that this has really strongly destabilized that ecosystem out there and we’re going to see some instability from this for years to come,” Steiner said. “It probably will not work in recovering the Mulchatna herd, which has declined for many other reasons: climate change, habitat decline, overgrazing, disease. There’s a brucellosis problem there, as well as over-hunting — both legal and illegal. The first thing the department should have done is try to get a handle on the illegal take of caribou.”

The state shut down hunting of the Mulchatna caribou herd in 2021.

The ADF&G press release acknowledges the additional reasons for the herd’s decline, but says, “…predator control is an immediate tool the department can use to attempt to reverse the herd’s decline.”

The release says the meat from all black bears and some brown bears was transported to local villages and provided for sustenance.

The Division of Wildlife Conservation plans to monitor calf summer survival to see if it increased in the treatment area as intended. They will also study whether the associated groups show signs of increased abundance during the post-calving aggregations compared to recent years and compared to the untreated eastern calving groups. This information will be evaluated to determine if further bear and wolf reductions during spring calving is warranted to aid further improvement in calf survival and herd growth.

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