Alaska’s recent brown bear slaughter a disgrace

By Rick Steiner

The state of Alaska’s killing of 94 brown bears (including cubs), five black bears, and five wolves last month in southwest Alaska, shooting them from helicopters, is a historic national and global disgrace. This certainly must be one of, if not the, largest kill of predators by state agents in such a short time in state history – another black eye for Alaska around the world.

There will almost certainly be backlash for Alaska. There should be. Alaska’s lethal predator control (“Intensive Management”) program, as currently practiced, is widely regarded as unscientific, unnecessary, ineffective, costly, unethical, inhumane, and controversial.

It is difficult to buy the state’s argument that such a slaughter was necessary, even useful, in rebuilding the Mulchatna caribou herd, which many biologists suspect has declined largely for other reasons –climate change, habitat problems, disease, overhunting, etc. But as the state wants to be seen doing something, killing more wolves and bears is their go-to response – a convenient distraction from the real ecological problems.

Some of this predator control ideology is driven by an irrational hatred and fear some still hold for wolves and bears. Some state officials, politicians, and their trophy hunting supporters seem to delight in approving such reprehensible control efforts simply to anger conservationists and wildlife viewers, a spiteful attempt to project dominance and superiority.

But it is likely that such sweeping predator elimination programs violate the state constitution’s requirement that wildlife be managed for all Alaskans, and on a sustainable basis.


Regardless, independent scientific studies have clearly shown that many of Alaska’s lethal predator control programs fail to produce the desired results of stable, long-term increases in ungulate populations, indeed that such practices can cause severe long-term ecological instability.

This is why the Governor Dunleavy administration continually resists requests for the state to submit its predator control program to credible independent scientific scrutiny by the National Academies of Sciences (NAS), as was done by former Governor Tony Knowles in 1997. That 1997 NAS review found many problems in Alaska’s predator control program, prompting Governor Knowles to, correctly, suspend lethal control.

Unfortunately, subsequent state administrations entirely ignored this scientific assessment. We proposed another such NAS review as recently as last November, but the state declined.

Obviously, the Dunleavy administration fears the results of another independent scientific assessment of its predator control activities. That should be a real red flag.

Also, Alaska’s tourism industry, which makes billions of dollars off of Alaska wildlife viewing, has for the most part turned a blind eye to this 19th century depravity.

Finally, the state receives a large amount of federal funds each year from the federal Pittman-Robertson program (this year alone over $50 million), ostensibly for “wildlife restoration,” and admits that it uses some of this federal money to survey wildlife populations in order to target its predator control programs.

Conservationists have pressed the Biden administration for two years to enact a rule to provide greater scientific oversight and public review of state use of these federal wildlife funds, and to withhold funds from state wildlife agencies that use federal funds at cross-purposes to federal goals – which are to manage wildlife for natural diversity and ecological balance.

At a minimum, federal wildlife restoration funds should not be used to support state agencies that conduct such destabilizing predator control programs.

So far, the Biden administration has ignored the request. Thus, the Biden administration shares some of the blame for this bear massacre in southwest Alaska.

Accordingly, as Alaska’s predator control efforts clearly contradict and undermine federal wildlife management objectives, we have asked the Secretary of Interior to immediately withhold all federal wildlife funds from Alaska until an independent NAS assessment is conducted and confirms that state wildlife management is consistent with federal ecosystem management goals. At this point it clearly is not, and the U.S. government should not be supporting such egregious state mismanagement.

Rick Steiner is a conservation biologist in Anchorage, and was a professor with the University of Alaska for 30 years.