Trump's War on Alaska's Bears Triggers Increase in Orphaned Cubs
August 17, 2017
Filipa Ioannou / San Francisco Chronicle
Last year, under President Obama, the US Fish and Wildlife Service put new restrictions on hunting in Alaska's 16 wildlife refuges -- which span more than 76 million acres -- but they were nullified in April by the Trump administration at the urging of the National Rifle Association and other groups. The new rules allow for practices like shooting bears from helicopters and planes. As a result, there has been a disturbing increase in the number of emaciated, orphaned bear cubs.
Cubs at SF Zoo Highlight
Glut of Orphaned Alaskan Bears
Filipa Ioannou / San Francisco Chronicle
(August 11, 2017) -- Two of the newest residents at the San Francisco Zoo are part of a glut of orphaned bear cubs found malnourished in the Alaskan wild in a trend that coincides with a repeal of regulations restricting the hunting of bears that was approved by President Trump.
The two black bear cubs -- one a male found in May in a wildlife refuge near Valdez, Alaska, the other a female rescued in June in a refuge near Juneau -- are part of a wave of Alaskan baby bears placed in zoos throughout the lower 48.
Both cubs at the San Francisco Zoo were emaciated when they were found, weighing less than 20 pounds, officials said.
"It's definitely not normal," said Patrick Lampi, executive director of the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage. "I've worked for the Alaska Zoo for 31 years, and we've never had this many bear cubs -- the most in the past it was maybe five or six, and this year it was 11."
The increase is dramatic, especially compared with last year, according to Lampi.
"Last year we had zero cubs -- we thought we were doing a pretty good job this year," he said.
The influx of orphaned bear cubs comes as problematic bear-human interactions appear to be increasing in the state, and at the same time as short-lived Obama-era regulations restricting the use of bear traps and aggressive hunting practices to protect predator populations on federal land have been repealed under a Republican-controlled Congress.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service put new restrictions on hunting in Alaska's 16 wildlife refuges -- which span more than 76 million acres -- into place last year, but they were nullified in April.
"Those rules didn't prevent hunting of those animals; what it did was prevent the most egregious methods . . . for example, baiting grizzly bears, killing wolves at the den at the time when they have pups, and then in some instances permitting the killing of female black bears with their cubs in the den," said Wendy Keefover, native carnivore protection manager for the Humane Society of the United States.
"You have to preserve these top predators to balance the ecosystem," she added, explaining that an environment like the Arctic can only sustain a certain amount of animals.
For decades in Alaska, though, predator-control programs have been supported by some hunters in an effort to increase moose and caribou populations, which bears and wolves eat.
Such programs were still allowed under the old rules if they were "based on sound science and in response to a conservation concern" or "necessary to meet refuge purposes," according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Definitively counting the bears can be challenging, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which estimates the state's total black bear population is around 100,000.
The Obama-era rules were undone by HJ69, a joint resolution introduced by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, and signed into law by President Trump on April 3. The resolution was supported by the National Rifle Association, among other groups, and allows for practices like shooting bears from helicopters and planes.
The NRA Institute for Legislative Action described the repealed Obama-era rules in a news release as a seizure of state authority that set a "dangerous precedent." The group praised the passage of HJ69 as a "victory for outdoorsmen."
Like conservation groups including the Sierra Club, the Humane Society and the Center for Biological Diversity, San Francisco Zoo Executive Director Tanya Peterson felt differently.
"To go backwards like this, to repeal a law that appears to be working -- it's dumbfounding to me," Peterson said.
When the Alaska Department of Fish and Game can't find permanent homes for cubs that are failing to survive in the wild or have become dangerously habituated to humans, Lampi said, they have to let them stay in the wild and "let nature take its course."
The cubs are spared that fate when they're taken in by organizations like the San Francisco Zoo -- and Lampi said that with the unprecedented spike in the number of cubs, he's also seen increased interest from zoos in taking in the youngsters.
"It's fortunate that there's so many homes available -- usually that's not the case," Lampi said.
Many of the bear cubs end up in the Alaska Zoo because they become drawn to inhabited areas by unsecured human food, according to Lampi.
That can lead to attacks, particularly as the human population grows and encroaches on historically bear-populated areas, researchers say.
In Alaska in June, two fatal maulings by black bears in a two-day period made headlines after 130 years in which only six fatal black bear maulings occured, Alaska Dispatch News reported.
Human-bear activity has been an issue in California, too. The Oakland Zoo took in a sow and three cubs earlier this year after the mother entered a home in Kern County and swiped at an elderly woman, the zoo announced. Bears that attack humans cannot remain in the wild and typically are euthanized, per California Department of Fish and Wildlife policy.
The Oakland Zoo will also play a role in finding homes for Alaskan cubs, taking in four grizzly bears at some point in the coming months to be housed in an exhibit the size of two football fields, according to Lampi and Oakland Zoo spokeswoman Erin Harrison.
Peterson said the San Francisco Zoo is making flexibility a priority so it can take in animals like the bear cubs when such situations arise.
A lake at the zoo that had not been used as an exhibit was recently repurposed to accommodate injured pelicans, for instance, she said.
"We're looking at this zoological park with new eyes and looking at what opportunities might be available," said Peterson. "I truly think this is where zoos of the future are going -- that we become the sanctuaries in response to lack of wildlife protections."
The new duo at the zoo were in dire condition when they were were found -- the female cub didn't even react when biologists picked her up and held her, Peterson said.
"Even a malnourished wild animal, typically, will react," said Peterson. "She didn't have the energy."
Now, though, both have gained weight and are expected to be on view beginning Monday in a refurbished exhibit that once housed a polar bear -- and Peterson said the female is likely to beat her companion as the first to scale a new climbing structure built for them.
"She's significantly smaller than the male right now," said Peterson, "but she's definitely a fighter."
Filipa Ioannou is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.
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