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Alaska authorities kill 81 bears and 14 wolves to help caribou calves

An aerial program to remove predators from caribou calving grounds in southwest Alaska has concluded its second year with the killing of a total of 81 brown bears and 14 wolves between May 10 and June 5, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said June 14. The killings are intended to improve the survival chances of calves in the Mulchatna caribou herd, which has shrunk by about 94 percent since 1997.

This spring, ADFG staff tracked caribou in the western half of the herd's calving grounds while patrolling for evidence of predators hunting or actively feeding on caribou. Removal of the 95 total predators was conducted only on state land, officials said, with efforts focused on an area of ​​about 530 square miles. That's half the size of the 2023 predator control area, when a total of 104 predators were removed (94 brown bears, five black bears and five wolves). The herd's eastern calving grounds were not subject to predator removal this year, as officials plan to compare calf survival in the two regions.

ADFG officials say their efforts appear to be having an impact. After the 2023 removals, staff documented an increase in calf survival rates through fall, with a caribou cow-to-calf ratio of 44 calves per 100 cows. That's “well above the 10-year average” of 23 calves per 100 calves, the agency notes in the release.

“Based on last fall, I expect we will see a large number of calves again soon,” ADFG Director Ryan Scott told the Anchorage Daily News.

A wolf steals the hind quarters of a caribou. Wolves hunt caribou calves, but researchers have found that brown bears are the main prey.

Photo by Ken Conger / N

Some calves will be fitted with GPS collars and agency staff will continue to monitor the survival of the calves during their first year of life. ADFG plans to conduct a photo count once the Mulchatna herd arrives in large numbers on its summer grazing range, as well as another survey of herd composition in October.

Although the government's killing of brown bears and wolves to protect caribou has sparked controversy and some lawsuits, ADFG has “no concerns about the bear or wolf population” as a result of the program.

“Western Alaska's bear and wolf populations are healthy,” the agency said, noting that pelts and skulls have been recovered where possible. “The removal of wolves and bears in the Western Spring Calving Control Area is occurring in a relatively small area surrounded by intact habitat on state and federal lands where no control activities are taking place.”

Wolf control began in the region in 2012; in March 2023, the state decided to expand those efforts with the current five-year intensive caribou management program. While the agency acknowledges that other factors, such as disease and habitat loss, can contribute to declining caribou populations, they are less easy to address. Instead, “predator control is an immediate tool the agency can use to try to reverse herd declines,” while officials conduct ongoing nutritional research and disease surveillance. Research from 2011 to 2021 found that predators – particularly brown bears – were responsible for nearly 90 percent of deaths of newborn caribou calves in the first two weeks of life.

The Mulchatna caribou herd.
The population of the Mulchatna herd from 1974 to 2022 (represented by the gray bars and the left axis of the graph) compared to hunting numbers (the gray line plotted against the right axis). Note that hunting numbers are actually much lower than the total population of the herd.

ADFG

The Mulchatna herd peaked in 1997 at 200,000 animals and has since declined to just over 13,000 animals in 2019, where it generally remains. This is well below the state's management goal of 30,000 to 80,000 caribou for the herd, which it considers necessary to maintain a huntable population. Many stakeholders remain concerned that poaching may be contributing to the low population. Harvest by native, resident and non-resident hunters peaked in 1999 with a reported kill of 4,770 animals, but that number declined sharply after that, generally following herd population trends.

Continue reading: Proposals would end hunting of non-resident caribou in Northwest Alaska

“Unreported subsistence harvest has been documented throughout the Mulchatna area, and several agency efforts are currently underway to increase education and awareness of hunting restriction and to monitor out-of-season harvests,” the agency noted in a draft of the Intensive Management Program FAQs dated June 20. “Out-of-season harvesting appears to be occurring at a similar rate to other remote areas of the state and is not having a profound impact on the population.”

The predator removal program cost about $309,200, according to ADN, but a cost estimate for this year's program was not yet available. ADFG officials were not immediately available for comment.

Anna Harden

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