Alaska Wildlife: Drawing the Line on UnBearable Hunting Practices

Stepping onto the shores of one of our national parks a brown bear staring back at you from less than 50 feet away could be considered a frightening experience. Fortunately, in my memories and those of so many others who have thrillingly encountered such incredible wildlife in Alaska's wild places, it was unforgettable. Two summers ago, I traveled to Alaska's Denali, Katmai, and Lake Clark National Parks and Preserves. In each of these three national parks, I had unique and incredible wildlife experiences with top predators.

From the visitor bus tour in Denali National Park and Preserve, I saw a brown bear sow playing with her cubs in the stunning tundra landscape; and in Katmai National Park and Preserve, I watched brown bears digging for clams at the waters' edge. These memories have been at top of mind recently, as NPCA supports the much-needed action by the National Park Service to end hunting practices in Alaska's national preserves that can only be described as UnBearable.

While wildlife populations are healthy in Alaska's national parks and wild places, hunting methods currently enforced on lands including those managed by the National Park Service are not. Alaska, as many of us know, is a different place from the lower 48 states. Alaska's national parks follow suit, with Katmai, Denali, Lake Clark, Gates of the Arctic, Glacier Bay, and Wrangell-Saint Elias designated as national parks and preserves. On lands designated as national preserves, hunting for subsistence as well as sport is legal. For years, rules set by the Alaska Board of Game, which included national preserve lands, were adopted by the National Park Service without conflict.

About 15 years ago, the rules began to change. Wildlife hunting rules in Alaska fell under the category of intensive management, where rules allow questionable to egregious hunting methods for brown bears and wolves -- for the sole purpose of allowing more caribou to survive these top predators, only to then be killed by human hunters. Many of the intensive management rules, which include baiting bears with grease-covered donuts or allowing hunters to go into a bear's den and kill it while it hibernates, can hardly be considered hunting.

My Alaska memories include enjoying a picnic lunch as brown bears wandered nearby. I wonder how long such an experience would even be possible if baiting continues, as the bears acclimate to human food smells from baiting stations. One of the world's leading experts on bear attacks, Dr. Stephen Herrero, notes that "At least 90 percent of the injuries inflicted by black bears during the period between 1960 and 1980 I attribute to bears habituated to people and conditioned to eat human foods." Visitor safety aside, such predator control strategies fly in the face of the National Park Service's management policies, which explicitly prohibit any action that would reduce predators for the purpose of increasing the numbers of other animals.

NPCA has long supported the Park Service's attempts to exempt lands that it manages from the Board of Game's predator control methods. Each time has produced frustrating results. NPCA has documented more than 60 instances since 2001 where the Alaska Board of Game ignored Park Service requests. This year, the National Park Service has taken a bold and long-needed stand by introducing its regulation changes to permanently prohibit methods such as baiting brown bears and bring an end to hunters crawling into bears' dens during their winter naps and using flashlights and other artificial light sources to find and kill the animals.

NPCA supports these regulations, and encourages you to join us by taking action. In addition to supporting the current regulations, we are asking the Park Service to take one step further, by also prohibiting the baiting of black bears in its final regulation package, to bring an end to the negative side effects that baiting stations can produce.

In this season of gratitude, NPCA is thankful to the National Park Service for its strong and much-needed action. We are grateful that places like Denali National Park and Preserve exist, making possible the incredible wildlife experiences that make Alaska such a special place. As we continue to set our sights on the Park Service's 100th birthday in 2016, supporting the wildlife regulation changes is yet another way that we can all help continue to strengthen our country's "best idea," our National Park System.