Arctic Alaska’s Conservation Conundrum

By  Dr. Joel Berger

The Arctic wind blows hard on the snow-covered plains a few hundred miles southwest of Prudhoe Bay.  It’s eight degrees in the winter chill. Despite global warming, I am still quite cold.  I watch the tracks of the grizzly bear disappear upslope as they narrow toward a newborn calf. Out of my field of vision its mother, a muskoxen – the quintessential land animal of the Arctic – stands guard. But it is no match for the powerful predator looking for its next kill.

Grizzly bears circle in the foreground with musk ox and calf in the distance, Joel Berger © Wildlife Conservation Society

About 3,500 years ago, the last woolly mammoths died on a distant Arctic island in the Chukchi Sea. Muskoxen—mammoths’ shaggy-coated Pleistocene contemporaries—still roam the Alaskan Arctic today. Muskoxen are known to many for their distinctive huddling behavior evolved for defense against predators like grizzly bears and wolves.   Recently this prey-predator relationship has itself become the focus of a discussion on conservation tools and approaches.

Alaska maintains that hunting of grizzly bears may help sustain the herd of muskoxen that uses the Dalton Highway just south of Prudhoe Bay.  But the pre-approval by Alaska for aerial shooting of grizzlies raises the broader conservation issue of how we sustain biological diversity in a given landscape and when – if at all – humans should intervene.

Grizzly bears, above, are the subject of a recent pre-approval decision on aerial gunning in Arctic Alaska, Julie Larsen Maher © WCS

History teaches us that muskoxen have co-existed for  thousands of years with bears, wolves, and sabered-cats. There are instances where bears get the upper hand, as has been the case for the small herd near Prudhoe. This might be because bears are smart or because the vicissitudes of weather offer them a temporary advantage. In my work as a scientist observing predator-prey relationships in the Arctic, I’ve seen evidence of both.

Muskoxen charging, Joel Berger © WCS

The fact is, despite a global population explosion of humans since the last mammoths walked the planet, Arctic Alaska remains remote and spectacular. Within this icy realm, muskoxen are surviving. Yet that has not always been the case. The state went to great lengths to re-introduce the species after its extirpation from overhunting in the late 1800s.

Grizzlies can be key predators, and Alaska has a long history of removing predators to ensure that game is available to local hunters. Today, neither grizzly bears nor muskoxen are endangered in Alaska. Given that reality, should we protect the population of one animal at the cost of another? Or are some animals, as George Orwell suggested in his famous novella Animal Farm, more equal than others?

There is no clear ecological rationale for culling one species to augment another, and it is unclear how broad culling of bears will affect the muskoxen population. Predator control is too often a stop-gap solution to address problems created by human manipulation of the environment. To adequately address long-term conservation for wildlife populations, historical baselines, population dynamics and current stressors must be fully understood.

Newborn and mother, Joel Berger © WCS

Whether predator control may be warranted is a decision that must be informed by science and made with great care – always asking if, why, and where interventions make sense. If humans are responsible for the altering of a system’s ecological dynamics, then perhaps targeted management action could be appropriate if carefully monitored to assess intended and unintended consequences. Human impact and intervention can tip predator/prey scales and redefine ecosystem hierarchy in unforeseen ways.

Muskoxen huddle for protection, Joel Berger © WCS

For example, predator control that largely eliminated large predators has been shown to impact both prey and other species.  My published studies in and around Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming showed that the loss of large predators like grizzly bears and wolves led to lower birth rates of moose, a less healthy moose population, and diminishing song bird diversity and numbers.

Many questions remain in ecology, including why some populations fail and others do not. Band-aid solutions like predator control may not achieve, and can in fact be counterproductive, to accomplishing long-term conservation goals. In addition, Alaska’s present decision to permit the shooting of bears from the air also raises fundamental issues on the importance to Alaskans and non-Alaskans of hunting ethics.  North American models of hunting, some developed during the Teddy Roosevelt era, have a rich history steeped in doctrines touting fair chase.  The essential question: Who decides what is fair chase?

But the larger issue goes beyond muskoxen and aerial hunting of bears.  If we wish to send a message to other nations about how to best conserve and use wildlife, we must lead by example and be dedicated in our own approach to thoughtful conservation practice grounded in science, long-term vision, and respect for all species

Dr. Joel Berger is a senior scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society and John J. Craighead Chair of Wildlife Biology at the University of Montana.  He has worked in Alaska for parts of two decades.  His most recent book is The Better to Eat You With: Fear in the Animal World.  His current fieldwork is in Arctic Alaska and in Central Asia


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