Alaska needs to value its live bears

By Wendy Keefover

Grizzly bears in Alaska, called brown bears, that live around the town of Bethel, population 6,325, should have a good life as they don’t interact with many people. But their future is in peril.

Alaska’s bears have powerful governmental enemies, starting with the state of Alaska. This spring, state wildlife agents in helicopters gunned down 94 brown bears, including cubs. Agents also killed five black bears and five wolves.

Why were these animals destroyed? It was an attempt to eliminate carnivores in a misguided effort to grow a small caribou herd for hunters. By Alaska’s own admission, the aerial gunning went too far. An early assessment by a state biologist said fewer than 25 brown bears would be killed.

For now, in the lower 48 states grizzly bears are protected, though some Western governors and members of Congress support trophy-hunting seasons targeting bears.

In Alaska that’s already legal, although a 2019 study co-authored by conservation biologist William Ripple, and others, found that in addition to state-sponsored shooting and trapping of brown bears, trophy hunters have doubled their kill numbers for bears over the past 30 years.

That is not sustainable. Alaska’s population of some 32,000 iconic brown bears now face the same fate as their lower 48 cousins, which once numbered 50,000 but are reduced to 2,000 animals.

Alaska’s predator-control projects cater to a small number of hunters who want to bring home trophy animals, or who wrongly believe that fewer carnivores like bears and wolves will create more prey animals.

Alaska’s wildlife culls have been roundly criticized by many biologists as unnecessary. Numerous studies indicate that predator-prey relationships are always complicated by multiple factors. In this case, the caribou herd was plagued by brucellosis, a disease of ungulates, as well as inadequate food and poachers.

What is undeniable, say multiple biologists from North America — writing as part of a 2018 letter to the U.S. Department of the Interior — is that officials need to protect Alaska’s bears and wolves from too much trophy hunting.

Shockingly, Alaska’s bear-killing activities are funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, using Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act dollars, which is an excise tax on guns, ammunition and archery equipment. The Service also funds other controversial predator-control programs such as in Colorado and New Mexico.

What’s puzzling is why hunting would come first when Alaska decides the fate of its brown bears. Why is bear-related tourism — a growth industry — ignored?

Americans love to watch bears. Because of their popularity, brown-bear viewing opportunities in Alaska’s Katmai National Park had to be limited by lottery. What’s more, over 10 million viewers tune into bear cams annually to virtually watch Katmai bears fish for salmon.

Tapping into this fervor, the National Park Service began an annual Fat Bear Week contest at the park, based on grizzles gorging themselves to get ready for hibernation. In 2021, more than 800,000 voted for Otis, an aged, toothless fellow who lost out the next yearto 747, a colossus nicknamed “Bear Force One” by the Park Service.

Thousands of tourists travel to Alaska every year just to catch a glimpse of Alaska’s brown bears in the wild, a pilgrimage that pours dollars into the state. A 2011 survey valued wildlife-watching tourism in Alaska at more than a billion dollars and this number has almost certainly grown as appreciation for wildlife has expanded in the United States. A 2018 American Wildlife Values national survey showed that more Americans than ever before appreciate their wildlife alive.

The question almost asks itself: What sense does it make for Alaska to kill bears? The answer is none. Federal funding for state wildlife agencies to kill carnivores makes no sense.

The Fish and Wildlife Service needs to adopt the widely supported 2021 formal petition, led by the Global Indigenous Council and co-signed by 28 organizations and scholars, which asks the agency to set up a public comment process before Pittman-Robertson funds can go to states for killing projects.

Wildlife management ought to represent all the people who care about wildlife, and sound science should be the guide when it comes to deciding what animal gets to live or die.

Wendy Keefover is a contributor to Writers on the Range,, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. She is a senior strategist for the Humane Society of the United States.

Grizzly bear on the beach, Alaska, USA

This column was published in the following newspapers:

07/25/2023 Vail Daily Vail CO
07/27/2023 Aspen Times Aspen CO
07/26/2023 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Grand Junction CO
07/26/2023 Jackson Hole News & Guide Jackson Hole WY
07/26/2023 Wyoming Tribune Eagle Cheyenne WY
07/26/2023 Craig Daily Press Craig co
07/26/2023 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
07/26/2023 Sterling Journal-Advocate Sterling CO
07/28/2023 Sierra Nevada Ally Carson City NV
07/26/2023 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
07/27/2023 Moab Times Independent Moab UT
07/27/2023 Taos News Taos NM
07/27/2023 Laramie Boomerang Laramie WY
07/29/2023 Carlsbad Current-Argus Carsbad NM
07/31/2023 Park Record Park City UT
07/29/2023 Yahoo sunnyvale ca
08/02/2023 Bandon Western World Bandon OR
07/29/2023 Alamogordo Daily News Alamogordo NM
08/06/2023 Explore Big Sky Big Sky MT
08/06/2023 Limon Leader Limon CO
08/03/2023 Bandon Western World Bandon OR
08/04/2023 Del Norte Triplicate Crescent City CA
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Another Excellent Post from Writers on the Range – “Summer is the season of inferior sledding” – Inuit proverb
8 months ago

[…] Alaska needs to value its live bears […]

Donald Molde
8 months ago

Wendy puts it well. This bizarre and non-scientific ‘war’ on predators across the West and in Alaska (perhaps the worst of the lot) is symbolic of changing times.
Wildlife watchers (and mutualists) now outnumber hunters substantially both in numbers and economic benefits. The public likes its wildlife alive and well. Hunters are in decline, shrinking in numbers each year, yet they still have all the votes and persist in ancient mythology that predators control prey species…instead of the other way round. The more it doesn’t work, the more they pursue this ‘war’ on predators to no avail. Truly, hunter behavior has shown clearly that we no longer should tolerate our current situation which is the Fox is in charge of the Henhouse. Wildlife management needs to be democratically and demographically consistent with the broad public interest, not a handful of ‘traditionalists’ running wildlife agencies like a private game farm.

8 months ago

[…] For now, in the lower 48 states grizzly bears are protected, though some Western governors and members of Congress support trophy-hunting seasons targeting bears.Read More… […]

Pat Young
8 months ago

Great article Wendy! The Western governors and Congress officials really need to be educated. Better yet bite them out! Save the bears! End trophy hunters!

pi boson
8 months ago

Lesley Richards, NPS, has co-authored terrific work on economic ROI of Brooks Falls bears, a compelling story that further demonstrates that states are ill -equipped to implement sustainable measures that benefit the People and the local economies.

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