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Ex-governor, biologists oppose bear snares

Posted: January 12, 2012 - 10:30pm

ANCHORAGE — The use of snares to kill bears is a “train wreck” of wildlife management policy, a former Alaska governor said Thursday as he announced that he was joining biologists in opposing the expansion of such methods.

Former Gov. Tony Knowles said he planned to testify Friday against proposals to expand the use of snares to kill bears so that more moose would be available to hunters. He said he has never appeared before the state Board of Game but wants to end the policy.

“This is nuts where we’re going,” he said. “This is a real train wreck that’s going to happen in terms of our wildlife management policies. That’s why I wanted to get involved in it.”

Knowles said he had great respect for the citizens who set seasons and bag limits for state wildlife. But he said the snares do not discriminate between grizzly and black bears.

Knowles will be joined by former state bear biologist John Schoen, who said he will present to the board a statement backed by 77 current or former wildlife scientists that says indiscriminate killing of bears without regard to age, species or gender is not compatible with scientific principles or the ethics of modern wildlife management.

Schoen declined to give the names of the scientists before he presents them to the Game Board, but said they represent about 1,600 years of involvement with Alaska wildlife. None are current Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists.

Conservation organizations have lobbied in the past against the state’s predator control, which has killed hundreds of wolves and scores of bears to boost moose and caribou populations. 

The board has increased the bag limit and hunting seasons, and several years ago, ramped up the killing of black bears by authorizing the use of snares in an area across Anchorage from Cook Inlet. Last year, on a 4-3 vote, the board extended snare use to grizzly bears in a portion of the same area near the villages of Tyonek and Beluga. 

The Department of Fish and Game said at the time that 80 percent of moose calves were dying during their first summer and that predation limited recovery of a moose population affected by deep-snow winters in the 1990s.

Fish and Game Department regional supervisor Bruce Dale said 319 black bears were killed last summer in the larger area, including 56 that were snared. Three grizzly bears were snared and considered incidental take.

In the smaller area, 117 grizzlies were killed, including 24 that were snared and others shot over bait.

Schoen said snaring is usually done by hanging a bucket of bait in a tree. When a bear reaches into the bucket, its front leg is caught by a cable. It remains there until the trapper shoots it.

Knowles, a Democrat who served consecutive four-year terms from 1994 to 2002, said there’s a good chance a bear will react violently when it’s caught, possibly even breaking a limb.

“If a snare is not immediately attended to, it’s long and painful process,” he said.

He said he objected to its use, however, because it did not follow principles of wildlife management policies. There are three principles that most Alaskans can agree on, he said: the resource always comes first, because it’s owned by every Alaskan; policies should be based on the best science and ethical practices; and polices should have the broad support of the Alaska public.

“Bear snaring fails on all three counts,” he said.

Schoen spent 20 years with the Fish and Game Department as a research wildlife biologist, including 10 as the bear research supervisor for northern Alaska. He said Alaska was the only North America site he knows that allows snaring of grizzly bears. 

He contrasted that as a management tool with traditional hunting, which lets a person choose an older male to harvest rather than a reproductive female or cub.

The scientists’ statement will address snaring, Schoen said. Speaking for himself, he said there were issues with killing bears — especially grizzlies — to boost ungulate populations.

The productivity of brown bears in North America is the lowest of any terrestrial mammal, he said. Bears are difficult and expensive to count, and if too many are taken, their numbers are hard to build back up. 

The board also planned to consider lifting a ban on the sale of bear parts, which would add a market incentive to killing the animals.

“You can harvest bears, or overharvest bears, to the point where you don’t know you’ve overharvested until you’re going over the edge,” Schoen said. “And then to bring them back takes a long time. The risk of overharvest is high.”

The Board of Game meeting will begin with public testimony and department reports and follow with deliberations of proposals. The meeting was scheduled to last through Wednesday.

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