Environment

President Obama Wants to Protect Wildlife From Cruel Killing Methods—and Hunters Aren’t Happy About It

Alaskan wildlife are on the threshold of gaining important new protections on specially designated federal public lands.

Brown mother bear protecting her cubs in a Finnish forest
Photo Credit: ArCaLu/Shutterstock

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently proposed changes to protect wolves, bears and other native carnivores on Alaska’s 16 National Wildlife Refuges, which encompass over 76 million acres. Currently, wolves, wolverines, black and brown bears and lynx may be hunted on designated national wildlife refuges employing some of the most cruel and unsporting methods sanctioned by the Alaska Board of Game—including baiting, trapping and killing mothers and cubs in their dens.

On April 7, the FWS closed its public comment period for this proposal and The Humane Society of the United States joins with many Alaska residents in hoping that it is soon finalized.

The proposal follows a National Park Service prohibition on the killing of wolves and coyotes during their denning season, killing of black bears with artificial light at den sites, killing bears with bait, using hounds to kill bears and shooting caribou in water within federal parks. The new FWS proposal takes this many steps further by extending these reasonable wildlife protections across more lands.

Unfortunately the FWS proposal is generating opposition from some special interests that are more concerned with collecting trophies than with preserving our native wildlife for future generations. Slaughtering native carnivores under a misguided belief system that “reducing predators” will make ungulate herds more abundant for human hunters, or to allow trappers to profit from the fur trade, is simply not supported by the best available science. Nor is this good policy.

Alaska’s grizzly bears provide the most iconic images of the state. Those great bruins snagging salmon from cascading waterfalls are among the images that give Alaska’s unique landscape and wildlife such a hold on the imagination of people around the world. Yet, unimaginably, Alaska’s grizzly bears face the same disturbing troubles that lead to their extirpation in the lower 48. According to former Alaska state biologists, the mean annual number of grizzly bears killed between 1976-1980 equaled 387, but that number jumped to 827 annually for the years 2004-2008, a 113 percent increase. A 2011 study strongly suggests that the Alaska Board of Game’s management is politically, but not scientifically, driven and could result in widespread reductions of Alaska’s grizzly bear populations.

There is overwhelming public support for the FWS proposal. A statewide poll by Remington Research Group shows that a strong majority of Alaska voters support an end to the practices included in the FWS’s proposal. Nearly 90,000 Americans responded to the Humane Society of the United States’ request to submit comments in support of the FWS’s rule. A coalition of 74 non-governmental organizations and a group of 31 prominent scientists have sent letters in support.

The strong public support for the changes is a strong signal that unsporting practices like baiting of brown bears is scientifically flawed and no longer acceptable to the majority of Americans whose tax dollars support public lands. Bear baiting involves intensive feeding of bears, typically weeks in advance of hunting seasons, so that the animals become accustomed to feeding in a certain area and then become easy targets for trophy hunters waiting nearby in blinds. Bait usually consists of donuts, candy, grease, rotting garbage, corn, fish, meat and other high-calorie foods, which can be toxic and even fatal to bears and other wildlife. Chocolate and caffeine are and can be lethal even for bears who are not later killed by hunters.

Bait sites attract wildlife who would otherwise not be in such close proximity, increasing the risk of spreading diseases, including rabies, and parasites. Smaller bears are at risk of being killed by larger bears. Bears become habituated to human foods, putting hikers, birders and other wildlife watchers at risk from the bears’ increasingly brazen and unpredictable behavior.

The FWS rule would also end the killing of mother bears, wolves and coyotes while they are in the den with their young. All young are dependent upon their mothers for months. The dependency of brown bear cubs lasts up to four years, making the protection of mothers with dependent young not only the humane choice, but the best conservation path.

The rule would also protect bears and other wildlife from the cruel jaws of leghold traps, leg and neck snares. Bears who are trapped, particularly younger ones, struggle vigorously to escape from traps and in the process suffer immensely. Bears are extraordinarily powerful creatures, and when restrained, they inflict serious damage to their limbs and joints, resulting in broken bones, strained muscles and nerve damage.

Given the Alaska Board of Game’s policies that favor special interests, the time for FWS to take action is now. We applaud the agency for taking this proactive step to protect our native carnivores.

Nicole Paquette is the vice-president of wildlife protection for the Humane Society of the United States.

 

 

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