Alaska’s Bear Hunting Regulation Changes Aren’t as Sensational as They Sound

No, regular hunters aren’t going to start killing bear cubs
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Tyler Freel kneeling behind a large spring black bear while hunting in Alaska.
The author with a spring black bear in Alaska. Tyler Freel

With all that’s happening in the world lately, it seemed like I was already living in the Twilight Zone. Then, in an episode of déjà vu, another unbelievable headline appeared on my newsfeed. It declared: “Trump administration makes it easier for hunters to kill bear cubs and wolf pups in Alaska,” with the tagline, “A ban against luring mothers from their dens with doughnuts and other treats will be lifted.” I remembered seeing these same articles back in 2018, so it didn’t take long to figure out what all the hoopla was about.

The actual rule change—and how it will play out here in Alaska—is pretty mundane. But I’ll admit that it sounds pretty bad when told by national media outlets with more spin than a Sandy Koufax curve ball. One story had a photo of a compassionate-looking sow brown bear with her cubs of that year. Another used a photo of two men celebrating over a dead sow they had just dug out of a den and killed. This photo had nothing to do with the rule changes, but was captured by an ADF&G trail camera set to monitor the den. The two men were actually poachers who illegally killed the sow and cubs on camera, and are currently facing charges.

In a nutshell, this rule change does one thing. It brings national preserve lands, currently under control of the National Park Service, back into step with Alaska’s state wildlife management regulations. It does NOT legalize general hunting in the national parks. Rather, it simply returns the rules to what they were until late in the Obama administration, when the administration established more restrictive rules with the intention of stunting the state of Alaska’s predator control plans in certain areas.

Now, the Trump administration is scaling back the expanded federal regulations to match the state regs. And that last round of these sensational-sounding articles—in 2018—was published in response to USFWS doing the exact same thing on the federal refuge lands that they manage.

In other words, state and federal policy are aligning on bear hunting regulations, and the situation is not nearly as extreme as these news sources portray it to be. Things like killing hibernating bears, denned wolf pups, sows with cubs, and cubs themselves are sometimes legal, but in very limited and specific capacities. These national articles would have you believe that it opens a free-for-all killing of all bears in sight by any hunter. In reality, not much is changing, and this portrayal will only rouse anger and resentment among the general public in the Lower 48.

The Alaska State Constitution mandates that its wildlife be managed for an abundance of ungulates and maximum sustainable yield of wild meat for its people. And in some cases, the state implements targeted predator control to achieve management goals. Under these revised rules, a few of the items now theoretically allowed include traditional Native Alaskan subsistence practices, which are only legal in specific places and capacities. Similarly, the extreme predator control measures (like killing wolf pups and sows with cubs) remain illegal in most of the state, because these rules are not intended as widespread hunting practices. The suggestion that such practices are allowed statewide as a matter of recreational hunting is completely false. Besides, killing cubs isn’t what bear hunters do anyway. It takes a lot of work to successfully hunt bears up here, and most of us are trying to take mature animals.

Probably the most widespread impact will be the allowance of taking grizzly or brown bears over bait. What that means is that people who have already been legally hunting black bears over bait in these areas for decades can now use that method as a selective management tool for grizzlies and brown bears. This is something the state has been slowly opening in different areas over the past decade. These management practices have demonstrated low success rates for grizzly hunters, with positive effects on the ungulate populations and very strong bear populations. In this case, we aren’t talking about spotlighting, or shooting cubs, or shooting sows with cubs, or shooting endangered animals, or anything all that new. These regulations pertain to a simple management tool that lets hunters help manage wildlife.

Alaskans are used to being portrayed as spectacles and savages by mainstream media and TV (and especially reality TV), so these misleading headlines don’t really surprise me either. But the narrative is nothing if not exaggerated and blown out of proportion. The new rule changes are neither as extreme or far-reaching as implied, and life will pretty much remain the same for your average snaggle-toothed Alaskan bear hunter, who’s just looking to enjoy the country we live in and put some meat in the freezer.