Leggett: Alaska's killing of bears, wolves to protect moose and caribou a failed program

This big black bear could be one of the top end predators that Alaska game officials tried killing in order to increase moose and caribou numbers in large game management. The program hasn't worked over 40 years, but officials plan to continue it.
This big black bear could be one of the top end predators that Alaska game officials tried killing in order to increase moose and caribou numbers in large game management. The program hasn't worked over 40 years, but officials plan to continue it.

Alaska officials have announced they’ve completed a study of the impact on moose and caribou herds of a 40-year program of killing thousands of bears and wolves in a huge game management area.

Interestingly, the state says they have no plans to stop the program of systematic killing of bears and wolves in the future. That decision would be based as much, it seems, on public opinion about population reduction of the large predators.

One thing it says to me is that any attempt to rein in the mindset among many people in the Lower 48 states that “we’d have more animals to hunt if we just got rid of those damned wolves” has failed.

But that particular mindset came packed with the china and silver brought to the new world by early settlers. The bounty here seemed like a bottomless hole, but we saw the near extinction of the bison and the total destruction of the passenger pigeon. Sturgeon, prized for their eggs, were also nearly wiped out.

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Alaska derives a significant amount of revenue each year from hunters who want to try to take a grizzly or black bear in the state known for huge populations of bears and wolves. But they’ve already studied and announced the results of the program in which they deliberately over-harvested top-end predators in a huge portion of the state.

I don’t know about other people, but I honestly feel good knowing that bears and wolves are out there doing their thing as they have for thousands of years. That’s not to say that I don’t care about moose and caribou, but that wouldn’t be true.

I do know that similar megafauna programs to get rid of certain animals in the continental U.S. have yielded disastrous results, even though they’ve been directed at other animals here. But it’s hard to cling to those “kill ❜em all” beliefs that really haven’t worked to save many species when we look at the hugely diminished numbers of wolves, mountain lions and grizzly bears.

Coyotes have been slaughtered on sight by most ranchers and hunters, myself included, but they seem to be increasing in numbers. True survivors, those wild dogs.

But our programs down here have been mostly to protect sheep and goats and cattle, not moose, caribou and deer. We need the livestock, but how much do we need?

Before you answer that question, consider the results of culling programs on native animals. Bison, which were killed in millions to deprive Native Americans their traditional food source, to the extent that they only survive through the vision of enlightened citizens in parks and preserves.

Mountain lions have been pushed westward to the far half at most of this country. Most people in this country, I would believe, have never seen a wild lion, though they once lived everywhere.

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Wolves reintroduced to the Yellowstone region have done well and prospered to a certain degree and now are considered a nuisance by many landowners. Federal game managers have allowed the killing of wolves in the land around Yellowstone National Park.

Those wolves dined regally on park elk that had increased to numbers that were threatening their habitat. In my annual trips to Montana and Wyoming, I would see herds of elk that numbered in the hundreds. That’s not natural, either, so maybe wolves weren’t such bad things for the habitat.

But Wyoming and Montana and Utah and Colorado aren’t anything like the Alaska wilderness and combined would fit into a tiny corner of the game management area in question.

In Africa, colonial Brits tried to get rid of many animals that were just out there where they were supposed to be. Lions, rhinos, elephants and leopards where subjected to the crude attempts to control their numbers. It only created more problems for the animals and the people and those problems and animals and people continue to try to maintain.

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For generations, we in the United States have attempted to control the weather in order to make life a little bit easier for people on the ground. Those attempts have failed and thank the lord for that.

It would be nice during a Texas drought to call up our local government chiefs and order up a nice thunderstorm and a 3-inch rain in time to grow the grass we need to feed our animals.

I’ve kind of wandered around on this subject, but I believe that my ruminations make sense. We have undertaken any number of attacks on certain animals, even when it was ill-advised and even dangerous.

I once interviewed a very nice man who had retired from his job as a government trapper in Colorado. He was supposed to trap and kill basically as many grizzly bears as he could. In so doing, he actually trapped and killed the very last grizzly bear in that state.

That fact is an interesting piece of history but still a sad event when viewed from 50 years in the future. There aren’t any more grizzlies in Colorado and that’s a shame.

Obviously, Alaska game officials aren’t trying to wipe out bears and wolves, but they weren’t able to find any population increases for moose and caribou during the 40 years they were trying to achieve that goal.

Colorado would be such a more interesting state if it still had grizzly bears and Alaska would be better off letting those wolves and bears live longer lives. Yes, some of them might be taken by hunters but the majority wouldn’t be harassed living far out in the bush where they do.

Meanwhile, we who hold the keys to their survival need to think about why our quick reaction to any problem is to kill it.

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Alaskan program to protect moose and caribou a failed experiment