The culling of Alaska’s bears and wolves

Over the course of 17 days, the team killed 94 brown bears — including several year-old cubs, who stuck close to their mothers, and 11 newer cubs that were still nursing — five black bears and five wolves. That was nearly four times the number of animals the agency planned to cull. Fish and Game says this reduced the area’s bear population by 74%, though no baseline studies to determine their numbers were conducted in the area. 

The goal was to help the dwindling number of Mulchatna caribou by reducing the number of predators around their calving grounds. The herd’s population has plummeted, from 200,000 in 1997 to around 12,000 today. But the killings set off a political and scientific storm, with many biologists and advocates saying the operation called into question the core of the agency’s approach to managing wildlife, and may have even violated the state constitution.


The culling of Alaska’s bears and wolves
A caribou herd forages for vegetation on a hill in Alaska.
Alexis Bonogofsky / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Board of Game, which has regulatory authority over wildlife, insisted that intensive control of predators in Wood-Tikchik was the best way to support the struggling herd. But the caribou, which provide essential food and cultural resources for many Alaska Native communities, are facing multiple threats: A slew of climate-related impacts have hampered their grazing, wildfires have burned the forage they rely on, warmer winters may have increased disease, and thawing permafrost has disrupted their migrations.

With conditions rapidly changing as the planet warms, wildlife managers nationwide are facing similar biodiversity crises. Rather than do the difficult work of mitigating rising temperatures, state agencies across the country are finding it easier to blame these declines on predation.

“We don’t want to talk about how the tundra is changing, because that’s something we can’t fix,” says Christi Heun, a former research biologist at Alaska Fish and Game.

“We don’t want to talk about how the tundra is changing, because that’s something we can’t fix.”

In Wyoming, where a deadly winter decimated pronghorn and mule deer, the state spent a record $4.2 million killing coyotes and other predators and is considering expanding bear and mountain lion hunts. Wildlife officials in Washington are contemplating killing sea lions and seals to save faltering salmon populations from extinction. In Minnesota, hunters are inaccurately blaming wolves for low deer numbers and calling for authorities to reduce their population. Culls like these are appealing because they are tangible actions — even when evidence suggests the true threat is much more complex. “You’re putting a Band-Aid on the wrong elbow,” says Heun, who now works for the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife. 

As the climate crisis intensifies, she and others say, wildlife management strategies need to shift too. “All we can do is just kind of cross our fingers and mitigate the best we can,” she adds. For people whose job is to control natural systems, “that’s a hard pill to swallow.” 

IN JANUARY 2022, a flurry of snow fell as the Alaska Board of Game gathered in Wasilla, far from where the Mulchatna caribou pawed through drifts, steam rising from their shaggy backs. Its seven members are appointed by the governor. Though they make important decisions like when hunting seasons open, how long they last, and how many animals hunters can take, they are not required to have a background in biology or natural resources. They also do not have to possess any expertise in the matters they decide. Board members, who did not respond to requests for comment, tend to reflect the politics of the administration in office; currently, under Republican Governor Mike Dunleavy, they are sport hunters, trappers, and guides. 

That day, the agenda included a proposal to expand a wolf control program from Wood-Tikchik onto the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge — though that would require federal approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; the government ultimately rejected the proposal.



A wolf carries a piece of prey while walking through a national park in Alaska.
National Park Service

The conversation began with two Fish and Game biologists summarizing their research for the board on the herd. Nick Demma explained that, like most ungulates, on average half of Mulchatna’s calves survive. In a study he conducted, many died within two weeks of birth; he mentioned as an aside that their primary predators are brown bears. “But I want to stress that this basic cause of death and mortality rate information is of little use,” he quickly added. Predator and prey dynamics are complex: The calves may have died anyway from injury or disease, and their removal may reduce competition for food and resources, improving the herd’s overall health. 

When Demma tried to analyze the existing wolf control program, he found he didn’t have the data he needed to see if removing the canines helped calves survive. In fact, from 2010 to 2021, when Fish and Game was actively shooting wolves, fewer caribou survived. So the researchers turned their attention to other challenges the herd might be facing. 

His colleague, Renae Sattler, explained that preliminary data from a three-year study suggested there could be a problem with forage quality or quantity, especially in the summer. This could lower pregnancy rates or increase disease and calf mortality. In the 1990s, the herd had swelled as part of a natural boom-and-bust cycle, leading to overgrazing. The slow-growing lichen the animals rely on takes 20 to 50 years to recover. Compounding that, climate change is altering the tundra ecosystem the animals rely upon. She also found that today, 37% of the sampled animals had, or were recently exposed to, brucellosis, which can cause abortions, stillbirths, and injuries. Biologists consider such high levels of disease an outbreak and cause for concern.



Caribou cross a stream in Togiak National Wildlife Refuge.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Sattler also noted that half of the animals that died in the study’s first year were killed by hunters taking them out of season — meaning the predators killing the most adult caribou were people. For all these reasons, the biologists suggested that the Board of Game reconsider the wolf control program.

Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang, who oversees the agency, immediately questioned their conclusions, and their recommendation. Killing predators, he said during the meeting, “seems like one of the only things that’s within our direct control.” In other words, it was better than doing nothing. 

Demma seemed taken aback, and chose his words carefully. “I guess what we are kind of trying to present there is just the information,” he told the board. “It’s — you know — wolves aren’t an important factor right now.” The meeting broke for lunch. When it resumed, the board unanimously voted to continue the wolf program through 2028, and, even more surprisingly, to add brown and black bears over a larger area. The public and Fish and Game biologists didn’t have the typical opportunity to comment on this expansion of predator control.

When he heard what happened, “I just was stunned. I was shocked,” says Joel Bennett, a lawyer and a former member of the Board of Game for 13 years. A hunter himself, Bennett served on the board under four governors and recalls his colleagues having a greater diversity of backgrounds and perspectives. Their votes were always split, even on less contentious issues. The unanimous vote “in itself indicates it’s a stacked deck,” he says. That’s a problem, because “the system only works fairly if there is true representation.”



Hoof prints and paw prints dot the sand in Togiak National Wildlife Refuge.
Steve Hillebrand / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

In August, Bennett and the Alaska Wildlife Alliance filed a lawsuit claiming the agency approved the operation without the necessary “reasoned decision-making,” and without regard for the state’s due process requirements. Bennett also was troubled that the state has tried to keep information about the cull private, including where the bears were killed. He suspects that, to have slain so many animals in just 17 days, the flights might have veered beyond the targeted area. He also wonders if any animals were left wounded. “Why are they hiding so many of the details?” he asked. A public records request reveals that although the board expected the removal of fewer than 20 bears, almost five times that many were culled without any additional consideration. 

Alaska’s wildlife is officially a public resource. Provisions in the state constitution mandate game managers provide for “sustained yields,” including for big game animals like bears. That sometimes clashes with the Dunleavy administration’s focus on predator control. In 2020, for example, the board authorized a no-limit wolf trapping season on the Alexander Archipelago, a patchwork of remote islands in southeast Alaska. It resulted in the deaths of all but five of the genetically distinct canines. The Alaska Wildlife Alliance sued, a case Bennett is now arguing before the state Supreme Court. “That was a gross violation of ‘sustained yield’ in anyone’s definition,” he says, adding that even today, there is no limit on trapping wolves there.

“That was a gross violation of ‘sustained yield’ in anyone’s definition.”

Once, shooting bison from moving trains and leaving them to rot was widely accepted. Attitudes have evolved, as have understandings about predators’ importance — recent research suggests their stabilizing presence may play a crucial role in mitigating some of the effects of climate change. Other studies show predators may help prey adapt more quickly to shifting conditions. But Bennett worries that, just as Alaska’s wildlife faces new pressures in a warming world, management priorities are reverting to earlier stances on how to treat animals. “I’ve certainly done my time in the so-called ‘wolf wars,’” Bennett says, “but we’re entering a new era here with other predators.”



A wolf print is seen in the mud near calving grounds for one of Alaska’s major caribou herds.
Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty Images via Grist

EVEN AS LEGAL CHALLENGES to the board’s decisions move forward, scientific debate over the effectiveness of predator control has flourished. Part of the problem is that game management decisions are rarely studied in the way scientists would design an experiment. “You’ve got a wild system, with free-ranging animals, and weather, and other factors that are constantly changing,” says Tom Paragi, a wildlife biologist for the state Department of Fish and Game. “It’s just not amenable to the classic research design.” Even getting baseline data can take years, and remote areas like Wood-Tikchik, which is accessible only by air or boat, are challenging and expensive places to work. 

Paragi has for more than a decade monitored the state’s intensive wildlife management programs and believes predator control can be effective. Looking at data collected since 2003, he notes that when Alaska culled wolves in four areas in a bid to bolster moose, caribou, and deer populations, their numbers increased. They also remained low in those areas where wolves were left alone. (His examination of this data has not yet been published or subject to peer review.) Elsewhere in the state, removing 96% of black bears in 2003 and 2004, reducing hunting, and killing wolves boosted the number of moose. Heavy snowfall during the next two winters killed many of the calves, and most of the bears returned within six years, but Paragi still considers the efforts a success. By 2009, the moose population had almost doubled.

He’s also not convinced that Demma and Sattler were right when they told board members that predation doesn’t appear to be the most pressing issue for the Mulchatna caribou. He says record salmon runs have likely brought more bears near the park and the calving grounds, and warmer temperatures have fostered the growth of vegetation that provides places to hide as they stalk caribou. As to the suggestion that the herd is suffering from inadequate food supplies, he notes that their birth rate has been high since 2009. That’s often a strong indicator of good nutrition. 

But Sattler says, “It isn’t that cut-and-dried.” A female caribou’s body condition, she explains, exists on a spectrum and affects her survival, the size and strength of any calves, and how long she can nurse or how quickly she gets pregnant again. “The impact of nutrition is wide-reaching and complex, and it isn’t captured in pregnancy rates alone.” Understanding how nutrition, brucellosis, and other factors are impacting the herd is complicated, she says.

“We can present the data, but what you do with the data is ultimately a political decision.”

There are a lot of interacting factors at play on the tundra — and among those trying to determine how best to help the herd. “Part of the frustration on all sides of this is that people have different value systems related to managing wild systems,” Paragi says. To him, last spring’s bear kill wasn’t truly a question of science. “We can present the data, but what you do with the data is ultimately a political decision,” he says. 

Sterling Miller, a retired Fish and Game research biologist and former president of the International Association for Bear Research and Management, acknowledges that crafting regulations is left to the politically appointed Board of Game. But Miller says the agency tends to dismiss criticism of its predator control, when there are valid scientific questions about its effectiveness. In 2022, Miller and his colleagues published an analysis, using Fish and Game harvest data, showing that 40 years of killing predators in an area of south-central Alaska didn’t result in more harvests of moose. “Fish and Game has never pointed out any factual or analytical errors in the analyses that I’ve been involved with,” he says. “Instead, they try to undercut our work by saying it’s based on values.”  

Miller also was involved in what remains one of the agency’s best examples of predator relocations. In 1979, he and another biologist moved 47 brown bears out of a region in south-central Alaska, which resulted in a “significant” increase in the survival of moose calves the next fall. But Miller says Fish and Game often misquotes that work. In reality, due to a lack of funding, Miller didn’t study the young animals long enough to see if they actually reached adulthood. Similarly, Fish and Game conducted an aerial survey this fall of the Mulchatna herd, finding more calves survived after the bear cullings. But Miller and other biologists say that’s not the best metric to measure the operation’s success: These calves may still perish during their first winter. 

The Alaska government is the only one in the world whose goal is to reduce the number of brown bears, Miller says, despite the absence of baseline studies on how many bears are in this part of the state. It irks him that the state continues to use his research as justification for allowing predator measures like bear baiting. In most parts of Alaska, Miller says, “the liberalization of bear hunting regulations has just been so extreme.”

“The liberalization of bear hunting regulations has just been so extreme.”

While last year’s bear killings were particularly egregious, similar cullings have gone largely unnoticed. State data shows over 1,000 wolves and 3,500 brown and black bears have been killed since 2008 alone. In 2016, for example, the federal government shared radio tag information with the state, which used it to kill wolves when they left the safety of the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve — destroying so many packs that it ended a 20-year study on predator-prey relationships. “There weren’t enough survivors to maintain a self-sustaining population,” recounted an investigation by the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. The nearby caribou herd still failed to recover. 

Multiple employees for Fish and Game, who didn’t want to be named amid fear of repercussions, told Grist that the agency was ignoring basic scientific principles, and that political appointees to the Board were not equipped to judge the effectiveness of these programs.

Even these criticisms of the agency’s science have been subject to politics: This summer, a committee of the American Society of Mammalogists drafted a resolution speaking out about Alaska’s predator control — only for it to be leaked to Fish and Game, which put up enough fuss that it was dropped. Link Olson, the curator of mammals at the University of Alaska Museum of the North, was one of many who supported the group taking a position on the issue. Olson says that even as someone who “actively collect[s] mammal specimens for science,” he is deeply concerned with Alaska’s approach to managing predators.

A month later, 34 retired wildlife managers and biologists wrote an open letter criticizing the bear cull and calling the agency’s management goals for the Mulchatna herd “unrealistic.” Meanwhile, neither Demma nor Sattler, the biologists who cautioned the board, are still studying the herd; Demma now works in a different area of the agency, and Sattler has left the state and taken a new job, for what she says are a variety of reasons.

EVERY FALL, millions of people follow a live-streamed view of the biggest bears in Katmai National Park, which sits southeast of Wood-Tikchik. The animals jockey for fish before their hibernation, in an annual bulking up that the National Park Service has turned into a playful competition, giving the bears nicknames like “Chunk,” and, for a particularly large behemoth, 747. 

Though marked on maps, animals like 747 don’t know where the comparative safety of the national park ends and where state management begins. This can mean the difference between life and death, as Alaska and federal agencies have taken very different approaches to predator control: The National Park Service generally prohibits it. This has sparked a years-long federalism battle. Back in 2015, for example, the Board of Game passed a rule allowing brown bear baiting in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, leading the Fish and Wildlife Service to ban it in 2016. The state sued, and in 2020 the Trump administration proposed forcing national wildlife refuges to adopt Alaska’s hunting regulations. Similarly, the National Park Service challenged whether it had to allow practices like using spotlights to blind and shoot hibernating bears in their dens in national park preserves. In 2022, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that federal agencies have ultimate authority over state laws in refuges; last year, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.



A bear hunts for salmon in Katmai National Park.
National Park Service

How these agencies interact with local communities is markedly different, too. Both Alaska Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have regional advisory groups where residents can weigh in on game regulations, but Alissa Nadine Rogers, a resident of the Yukon- Kuskokwim Delta who sits on each, says that, unlike the federal government, it feels like “the state of Alaska does not recognize subsistence users as a priority.” On paper, the state prioritizes subsistence use, but under its constitution, Alaska can’t distinguish between residents, whereas the federal government can put the needs of local and traditional users first. This has frequently led to separate and overlapping state and federal regulations on public lands in Alaska. 

Many people in the region rely on wildlife for a substantial part of their diet. Since the area isn’t connected by roads, groceries must be barged or flown in, making them expensive — a gallon of milk can cost almost $20. In addition to being an important food source, caribou are a traditional part of her Yupik culture, Rogers explains, used for tools and regalia. It’s a real burden for local communities to be told they can’t hunt caribou, which has driven poaching. As state and federal regulations have increased restrictions on hunting, she says residents have difficulty obtaining enough protein to sustain themselves through the winter. “If people don’t understand how it is to live out here, what true perspective do they have?” she asks. “Subsistence users are the ones who bear the burden when it comes to management. And a lot of the time, folks aren’t feeling that their voices are being heard or adequately represented.”

Yet Rogers says state and federal systems can provide an important balance to each other, and she approves of Fish and Game’s predator control efforts. As the former director of natural resources for the Orutsararmiut Native Council, she helped the council write a resolution, later passed by the statewide Alaska Federation of Natives, supporting last spring’s bear and wolf cull. She thinks officials should focus more on climate change but believes culling remains a useful tool. “It gives a vital chance for the [caribou] population and immediately supports growth and recovery,” Rogers says. She also asked Fish and Game to institute a five-year moratorium on all hunting of the herd. “If we go any lower, then we’re pretty much gonna be facing extinction.”

Who gets to make choices about the state’s fish and wildlife resources is a point of increasing tension this year, as a lawsuit unfolds between the state and federal government over who should manage salmon fisheries on the Kuskokwim River, to the west of the Togiak refuge. All five of its salmon returns have faltered for over a decade — making game like caribou even more critical for local communities. (In sharp contrast, to the east of the river, Bristol Bay has seen record recent returns, showing how variable climate impacts can be.) The Alaska Native Federation and the federal government say fishing should be limited to subsistence users, while the state has opened fishing to all state residents.



The sun sets over the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge.
Getty Images via Grist

To ensure Alaska Native communities have a voice in such critical decisions, the Federation called for tribally designated seats on the Board of Game this fall. “We need to have a balanced Board of Game that represents all Alaskans,” says former Governor Tony Knowles. He, too, recommends passing a law to designate seats on the board for different types of wildlife stakeholders, including Alaska Native and rural residents, conservationists, biologists, recreational users, and others. Knowles also proposes an inquiry into Fish and Game’s bear killings, including recommendations on how to better involve the public in these decisions. “We deserve to know how this all happened so it won’t happen again.”

It’s clear to many that business as usual isn’t working. “I have no idea how the state comes up with their management strategy,” says Brice Eningowuk, the tribal administrator for the council of the Traditional Village of Togiak, an Alaska Native village on the outskirts of the Togiak refuge. He says Fish and Game didn’t tell his community about the bear cull, and he expressed skepticism that primarily killing bears would work. “Bears will eat caribou, but that’s not their primary food source,” he says.

Part of the solution is setting more realistic wildlife goals, according to Pat Walsh, whose career as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist involved supervising the caribou program in the Togiak refuge. Recently retired, he says the current goal for the Mulchatna herd size was set 15 years ago, when the population was at 30,000, and is no longer realistic. Reducing that goal could allow targeted subsistence use — which might help ease some of the poaching. Though Fish and Game has killed wolves around the Mulchatna herd for 12 years, he points out the caribou population has steadily dropped. “We recommended the board reassess the ecological situation,” he says, and develop goals “based on the current conditions, not something that occurred in the past.” 

Today’s landscape already looks quite different. Alaska has warmed twice as quickly as the global average, faster than any other state. When Rogers was in high school, she tested the permafrost near her house as an experiment. As a freshman, she only had to jam the spade in the ground before she hit ice. By the time she was a senior, it thawed to a depth of 23 inches — and in one location, to 4 feet. Summers have been cold and wet, and winters have brought crippling ice storms, rather than snow. Berry seasons have failed, and the normally firm and springy tundra has “disintegrated into mush,” Rogers says.

Feeling the very ground change beneath her feet highlights how little sway she has over these shifts. “How are you gonna yell at the clouds? ‘Hey, quit raining. Hey, you, quit snowing’?” Rogers asked. “There’s no way you can change something that is completely out of your control. We can only adapt.”

Yet despite how quickly these ecosystems are shifting, the Department of Fish and Game has no climate scientists. In the meantime, the agency is authorized to continue killing bears on the Mulchatna calving grounds every year until 2028. (The board plans to hear an annual report on the state’s intensive management later this month.) As Walsh summarizes wryly, “It’s difficult to address habitat problems. It’s difficult to address disease problems. It’s easy to say, ‘Well, let’s go shoot.’”

“It’s difficult to address habitat problems. It’s difficult to address disease problems. It’s easy to say, ‘Well, let’s go shoot.’”

Management decisions can feel stark in the face of nature’s complexity. The tundra is quite literally made from relationships. The lichen the caribou feed on is a symbiotic partnership between two organisms. Fungus provides its intricately branching structure, absorbing water and minerals from the air, while algae produces its energy, bringing together sunlight and soil, inseparable from the habitat they form. These connections sustain the life that blooms and eats and dies under a curving sweep of sky. It’s a system, in the truest and most obvious sense — one that includes the humans deciding what a population can recover from, and what a society can tolerate. 

As another season of snow settles in, the caribou cross the landscape in great, meandering lines. There are thousands of years of migrations behind them and an uncertain future ahead. Like so much in nature, it’s hard to draw a clear threshold. “Everything is going to change,” Rogers says.

Lois Parshley is an award-winning independent investigative journalist. Follow more of her climate reporting @loisparshley on social media. We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at editor@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

An Alaska Native mutual aid network tackles the climate crisis

Despite Supreme Court ruling, ICWA challenges remain

The nation’s highest court recently upheld the Indian Child Welfare Act in a major case over the law’s constitutionality, a decision hailed by many as a victory for Indigenous children and their families.

But while the 7-2 majority decision in the Brackeen v. Haaland case firmly rejected key arguments against the law known as ICWA, state-level challenges have been moving through lower courts across the country, with varying degrees of success.

Cases in Nebraska, Alaska, Iowa, Montana and Oklahoma center on different legal issues than those decided by the U.S. Supreme Court last month. Plaintiffs in Brackeen v. Haaland — a group of states along with white adoptive parents seeking custody of Native children — argued unsuccessfully that ICWA was unconstitutional because it exceeds the “plenary powers” of Congress to pass legislation governing tribal affairs, “commandeers” states to follow federal law and violates equal protection guarantees.

Yet while the Supreme Court upheld ICWA’s constitutionality for now, legal experts who are both supporters and critics of the 45-year-old federal law say the Brackeen case doesn’t rule out future challenges to tribal sovereignty.

What’s more, justices declined to delve into the equal protection arguments in the case, stating only that the plaintiffs “lack standing” on that issue because the adoptions of Indigenous children they sought had been finalized. Some court watchers say that leaves open the possibility of future lawsuits on equal protection issues.

The 1978 law in question seeks to repair damage caused by centuries of forced attendance at Indian boarding schools and coercive adoptions into white, Christian homes. That legacy has endured in Indian Country, where the rate of foster care removals remains far higher than in other racial and ethnic communities.

Under ICWA, state child welfare agencies must determine whether a child facing foster care, adoption or guardianship is a member of a Native American tribe. If they are an enrolled member or have a parent who is enrolled and are eligible for tribal membership, the case takes a different pathway than for other children. Tribes must be offered the opportunity to take jurisdiction from the state court; tribal members and Indigenous foster parents and kin must be prioritized for placements; and social service agencies must make “active” rather than “reasonable” efforts to help parents accused of maltreatment reunite with their children.

Kate Fort, director of the Indian Law Clinic at Michigan State University College of Law, outlined the most common reasons for an ICWA appeal in the March edition of the Juvenile and Family Court Journal.

She wrote that between 2017 and 2022, more than 40 percent of all such cases were remanded — sent back to lower courts — or reversed. Plaintiffs in 87 percent of the ICWA-based appeals were biological parents of an Indigenous child. About half the cases were appealed based on parents’ belief that the court improperly determined ICWA’s application to their child’s case.

“These data indicate that agencies and courts are still struggling with the first step in an ICWA case — whether they have an ICWA case at all,” Fort wrote in the paper.

Two ICWA-related cases were decided by the Alaska Supreme Court in July 2022.

They involved the federal law’s provision requiring that a “qualified expert witness” testify about the Indigenous child’s tribe, customs and traditions before their parent’s rights can be terminated. Those challenges did not prevail.

Recent disputes over ICWA in state courts center on tribal jurisdiction, the definition of a Native child, and termination of parental rights, among other issues. The following is a summary of some recent cases:

Oklahoma

Tribal court jurisdiction in child welfare cases lost ground in an April ruling in Oklahoma. In the decision — involving a child identified as S.J.W. — the state Supreme Court gave lower courts increased ability to grant custody of Native children living on a reservation that is not their own.

S.J.W.’s parents argued that “the Chickasaw tribal court has exclusive jurisdiction regardless of the fact that S.J.W. is a nonmember Indian child,” according to court documents. The state maintained it had shared jurisdiction on cases involving ICWA.

Critics call the ruling involving a Muscogee child living on Chickasaw Nation’s reservation deeply flawed.

The state Supreme Court “misunderstands tribal sovereignty,” the Choctaw Nation’s senior executive officer of legal and compliance Brian Danker told a National Public Radio affiliate. “This ruling could impact a tribe’s ability to protect tribal citizens’ social, cultural and familial connections as it attempts to chip away at the foundations of tribal sovereignty in the state of Oklahoma.”

Fort described the Oklahoma ICWA case as unique, and a “truly unfortunate opinion with absurdly weak analysis.” Fort said tribes’ ability to retain jurisdiction over child welfare cases remains an ongoing fight in multiple states.

Iowa and Nebraska

In another suit filed this past April by the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, the Supreme Court in Nebraska denied the tribe’s request to intervene, because it had previously been determined the child in question did not meet the criteria of an “Indian child.” The child’s mother was eligible for tribal enrollment, but was not yet enrolled.

The tribe argued the spirit of ICWA should apply to the case, but the state of Nebraska opposed that position, and was victorious in court. Ultimately, the state’s highest court ruled that ICWA’s specific requirements to determine a child’s eligibility for its protections should be strictly applied.

In April 2022, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld a juvenile court’s ruling that denied a child ICWA protections, affirming a prior decision to terminate the rights of the child’s parent. The juvenile court found the state’s “reasonable efforts” to avoid out-of-home placement — instead of the “active efforts” required for tribal members under ICWA — were adequate because the child was deemed to be non-Native.

Montana

ICWA was affirmed in a Montana case decided by the state Supreme Court in January, a ruling that underscored how the federal law applies to guardianships and third-party custody proceedings, in addition to adoption and foster care cases.

The child’s mother, an enrolled member of the Native Village of Kotzebue Tribe in Alaska, provided the court with verification that her three children were eligible for ICWA protections. She asked the courts to remove her children from the Montana home of their paternal grandparents — who had full custodial rights — and restore her custody. The case was sent back to lower courts for further proceedings to determine if the children should be returned to their mother.

Minnesota

Nearly two weeks after the Brackeen decision in mid-June, the U.S. Supreme Court denied review of a recent Minnesota case making a related equal protection argument — that ICWA discriminates against non-Native foster and adoptive parents.

In March 2022, Hennepin County was sued by two Indigenous foster parents who were unsuccessful in the adoption of the Indigenous child they were fostering. Instead, the child’s tribe, Red Lake Band of Chippewa, took over the proceedings and granted custody to the child’s maternal grandmother. The foster parents were considered “nonmembers” in the ICWA case, because one is enrolled in the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa and the other is a White Earth Nation descendant.

The plaintiffs in the case — who, under ICWA, lost priority in their adoption efforts in favor of the child’s relative despite having adopted the child’s siblings — were represented by Minnetonka attorney Mark Fiddler, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. He also represented the white adoptive couples seeking to overturn ICWA in Brackeen v. Haaland. The conservative Goldwater Institute filed amicus briefs in both cases, challenging ICWA’s constitutionality.

In an email, Fiddler said that while the institute attacked ICWA as unconstitutional, the plaintiffs did not. “Rather, they argued ICWA could and should be interpreted to be constitutional by not forcing nonmembers into a jurisdiction foreign to them,” he said.

“Petitioners were improperly subjected to the personal and subject matter jurisdiction of a state foreign to them, one where they have no right to vote,” plaintiffs stated in Denise Halvorson v. Hennepin County Children’s Services Department case documents. As a result, the lower court violated “their due process rights to fundamental fairness and equal protection.”

But the petition to the U.S. Supreme Court was denied on June 26.

Fiddler said despite the high court upholding ICWA in Brackeen and its denial of the Hennepin County case, establishing standing in an equal protection case against ICWA “would be easy,” and he fully expects continued challenges to the law on this issue and others.

“Any foster or adoptive parent would have the right to move to strike down ICWA in state court, so long as he or she was jeopardized by it somehow,” Fiddler stated shortly after the Brackeen decision.

The Imprint is a non-profit, non-partisan news publication dedicated to reporting on child welfare.

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Governor’s education vetoes ‘dramatically’ affect Wrangell schools, says superintendent

A remote Alaska village depended on the snow crab harvest for survival. Then billions of crabs died.

In January, with the almond bloom in California’s orchards a month away, beekeepers across the country were fretting over their hives. A lot of their bees were dead, or sick. Beekeepers reported losing as much as half their hives over the winter.  Jack Brumley, a California beekeeper, said he’d heard of people losing 80 percent of their bees. Denise Qualls, a bee broker who connects keepers with growers, said she was seeing “a lot more panic occurring earlier.”

Rumors swirled of a potential shortage; almond growers scrambled to ensure they had enough bees to pollinate their valuable crop, reaching out to beekeepers as far away as Florida, striking deals with mom-and-pop operations that kept no more than a few hundred bees. NPR’s All Things Considered aired a segment on the looming crisis in the almond groves.

By May, it was clear that California’s almond growers — who supply 80 percent of the world’s almonds — had successfully negotiated the threat of a bee shortage, and were expected to produce a record crop of 2.5 billion pounds, up 10 percent from last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But the panic, it turns out, was justified. The results of this year’s annual Bee Informed Partnership survey, a collaboration of leading research labs, released Wednesday, found that winter losses were nearly 38 percent, the highest rate since the survey began 13 years ago and almost 9-percent higher than the average loss.  

The panic underscored a fundamental problem with the relationship between almonds and bees: Every year the almond industry expands, while the population of honeybees, beset by a host of afflictions, struggles to keep pace.

“We are one poor weather event or high winter bee loss away from a pollination disaster,” Jeff Pettis, an entomologist who at the time was head of research at the USDA’s Bee Research Laboratory, said in 2012. And while the disaster Pettis warned of hasn’t struck yet, its likelihood grows each year.

Jeff Pettis, an entomologist who formerly worked at the USDA, says his 2012 warning of a potential pollination disaster remains valid today. USDA photo by David Kosling.

There would be no almond industry without the honeybee, which so far is the only commercially-managed pollinator available in sufficient numbers  to work California’s almond fields. The industry is in the midst of a boom, as Americans eat more almonds than ever. We consume more than two pounds per person each year in our granola bars, cereals, milks, and regular old nuts, fueling an $11-billion market.

It’s not clear that boom is sustainable. Though concern about a bee shortage seemed acute this year, the pollination market for almonds has been tightening for more than a decade. In 2005, fear of a pollinator shortage was so great that the government allowed wholesale importation of honeybees for the first time since 1922.

California’s almond industry spreads over 1.4 million acres of the Central Valley. During bloom, which typically unfolds over three weeks in February, these orchards require the services of some 80 percent of all the honeybees in the country.

Honeybee colonies, on the other hand, have been dying at high rates. Historically, colonies died mostly during the winter. So when the Bee Informed Partnership started tracking colonies in 2007, it only looked at winter losses, which have ranged from 22 percent to this year’s nearly 38 percent. Along the way, researchers realized that beekeepers had started losing a surprising number of bees in the summer, too, a season when all should be going well for bees. They started tracking annual losses in 2013, which have ranged between 33 percent and 45 percent. The loss for the year ending March 31 was 41 percent.

The threat to the bees is multifaceted and existential. The varroa mite, an invasive species of external parasite that arrived in Florida in the 1980s, literally sucks the life out of bees and their brood. Herbicides and habitat loss have destroyed the bees’ forage. An array of pesticides, including dicamba and clothianidin, have been found to damage the bees’ health in a variety of ways, weakening their immune systems, for instance, and slowing their reproductive rate.

The varroa mite, an invasive parasite, is the biggest threat to honeybees. It literally sucks the life out of them. USDA Agriculture Research Service photo.

The process of getting the bees to the almonds adds another stressor. Each January, the sluggish bees are prodded into action much earlier than what would be their normal routine. They are fed substitutes for their natural foods of pollen and nectar so they will quickly repopulate the hive to be ready for almonds. They are then loaded onto trucks and shipped across the country, plopped in an empty field and fed more substitute food while they wait for almonds to bloom.

“We’ve had to bend the natural behavior of honeybees around almonds,” said Charley Nye, who runs the bee research operation at the University of California, Davis.

One reason beekeepers are less inclined to talk about this distortion of nature is that almond pollination has become their biggest single money-maker of the year, accounting for about one-third of their annual income in 2016. No other crop pays as well as almonds, so if a beekeeper misses almond pollination, it could cripple his business.

“They’re not dead, but if they don’t make it to almonds, then from an economic standpoint, they’re as good as dead,” said Gene Brandi, a California beekeeper, back in January when the panic was in full bloom.

In 2018, California had 1.1 million acres of almond trees bearing nuts and another 300,000 acres of trees still too young to need pollination. Each acre of mature trees is supposed to be pollinated by two honeybee colonies. There are between 10,000 and 15,000 bees in a colony when they arrive in the almond fields, and for the last four years, the U.S. has averaged 2.67 million colonies right before almond bloom.

You can do the math, but like Nye says: “As the almond acres grow, the demand for colonies seems to be outpacing the number of colonies that exist.”  

The tight market has forced growers and brokers to expand their search for bees. “It used to be that we only dealt with operations that managed at least a thousand to 3,000 hives,” said Pettis, the former USDA entomologist. “Now people are pulling bees from smaller and smaller operators. They’re pulling bees literally out of people’s backyards and putting them on trucks to pollinate almonds. And while we used to only move bees from west of the Mississippi River, now we go all the way to Florida and New York state.”

Growers are also hedging their bets by securing more bees than they actually need, a strategy that only exacerbates the tight market.

The intel used to gauge the number  of bees in the country is surprisingly imprecise. The bee count offers just a small snapshot in time and relies on beekeepers’ responses to a poll. The numbers are approximate, with undercounts more likely than overcounts. Yet the trend lines are clear: Unless something changes, at some point in the near future we won’t have enough bees.

Limiting colony losses is one way to change the trend. The honeybees’ biggest threat is the varroa mite. The USDA, Project Apis m., and both beekeepers and bee producers are currently conducting trials of a varroa-resistant bee that will work for commercial beekeepers. Also, researchers have been working for years on a backup to the honeybees for early-season crops like almonds. This bee, the blue orchard bee, is in the early stages of commercial production, and it will be years before it could make significant inroads in replacing some of the honeybees.

Meanwhile, there are signs that almond growers are becoming more amenable to bee-friendly practices such as modifying pesticide use and planting flowers in their orchards that would provide alternate forage for the bees while they wait for the almond bloom. Nye said some growers are getting “a little more sensitive to the job the honeybees are doing; they seem to be investing more in pollinators.”

Americans are eating more almonds than ever, more than two pounds per person each year in everything from granola bars and cereal to almond milk and the nuts themselves. USDA photo by Lance Cheung.

Ultimately, a big part of the solution may be to reevaluate the number of colonies deployed per acre. “Those standards were set many, many, many years ago,” said Bob Curtis, a pollination consultant with the Almond Board of California, and a lot has changed since then.

For the last 12 years, almond groves have produced one-third more nuts than they did in the dozen years before that. Some orchard management practices have changed in that time, but growers also began requesting, and paying a premium for, stronger hives that contain more bees. Today, most of the colonies that go to almond groves contain twice as many bees as they did in decades past. Whether the higher production rate of the almond trees is due to more bees per colony, different management practices, or some combination of factors is hard to say.

Curtis said the Almond Board is undertaking new studies to determine if the stocking rate could be adjusted, which would ease the pressure on embattled beekeepers to keep up with the surging almonds.

A lower stocking rate would also ease the stress on the bees themselves, but it wouldn’t stop them from dying in excessive numbers. Reversing that trend will require dramatically different approaches to everything from how we farm to how we use our land — things not likely to change anytime soon. The disaster Pettis warned of remains a very real possibility. Honeybees continue to be in a fight for their lives.

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Portraits of a fishery: Sitka trollers gear up for an unexpected season

Will Yellowstone’s grizzly bears remain forever isolated?

Only about 35 miles separate Yellowstone’s relatively small, isolated grizzly bear population from the expansive contiguous population of Montanan, Canadian and Alaskan grizzlies that numbers in the tens of thousands.

Bridging the gap, and diversifying the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem bruins’ genepool, has been a longstanding goal, a centerpiece of the debate over bear management and thus far, a vexingly elusive accomplishment. 

Yet, grizzly researchers expressed hope last month that population “connectivity” may soon be within reach, despite also reporting at the same meeting in Cody that Yellowstone region bears have stopped expanding their range.

Frank van Manen, leader of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, at the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee’s Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee meeting in Cody in May 2023. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

“I’m optimistic,” Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team leader Frank van Manen told WyoFile. “The reality is we are really close.”

Why, after a half century without any interpopulation exchange, and in the face of a stagnating range, would connectivity happen now?

Biologists have assembled something of a Yellowstone-region grizzly family tree by capturing, extracting blood from and mapping the genes of more than 1,000 bears over the decades. The project has yet to produce firm evidence that even one animal has trekked south and mingled its genes with the locals.

But at least one grizzly has gone in the opposite direction. 

In 2021 a 5-year-old male was caught and killed for preying on cattle near Montana’s Little Snowy Mountains, far to the east of the grizzly population swelling into the plains from the Glacier National Park-anchored Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. Surprisingly, the itinerant bear came from somewhere else. From the grizzly family tree, van Manen and other biologists deduced that the boar moseyed 110 miles from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s Beartooth Mountains, where it was likely born and raised. 

Just 35 miles separate the occupied ranges of grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide ecosystems. (Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team)

“It’s in the wrong direction, but it shows the potential of connectivity,” van Manen said. True connectivity, from a wildlife biology perspective, requires an influx of fresh genetics into the more isolated population — in this case the Yellowstone Ecosystem bears — meaning a bear trekking north doesn’t check the box. But, the opportunity is “there, if we just had a bear do the opposite. And there’s no reason to think that would not be possible, right?”  

Biologically, yes. But 21st century grizzlies inhabit a human-dominated landscape in which politics, policy and the behaviors of people arguably have as much influence over connectivity as biology.   

Conflict conundrum

Montana’s grizzly bear management plan “basically says we are going to allow for connectivity,” said Cecily Costello, a research biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

But can the bears avoid deadly conflicts as they head south? The prospect of conflict is much lower in the ecosystem cores than in the intervening landscapes. Some 84% of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem’s grizzly recovery zone is public land, and the figure is a whopping 98% within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. But only 54% of the connectivity area is publicly managed ground, according to data Costello presented at the Cody meeting. 

The expected emergence of 27-year-old Grizzly 399 in spring 2023 caused photographers to gather roadside in Grand Teton National Park for weeks. She emerged on May 16, lone cub in tow. Not all grizzly bears are so adept at dealing with people. (Mike Romano/Romanosphotography.com)

Conservation groups are mounting efforts to create more bear-friendly landscapes in the connectivity areas, but that’s a long-term and costly endeavor. It might take 20 years of hard work, guessed Gary Burnett, a managing director for the Missoula-based Heart of the Rockies Institute. 

“From a connectivity perspective, we think there are two things in particular you need to have,” Burnett said. One, he said, is an “open landscape” — achieved through means like conservation easements. The other component is diminishing the harmful “attractants” that come with humanity, be they agricultural or residential. 

Some causes of grizzly mortality are easier to eliminate. 

Former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly bear recovery coordinator Chris Servheen believes Montana’s management plan doesn’t do enough to safeguard grizzlies in the connectivity areas. He’s also optimistic that a Montana grizzly will successfully disperse south — it’s likely to occur within “three or four years” — but worries state management could jeopardize the chances of such a movement occuring. 

“Every year we see bears further and further out and closer and closer together,” Servheen said, “but that’s happening while they’re listed [under the Endangered Species Act] and that’s happening without any hunting in that connectivity area.” 

Factoring in hunting, Servheen said, the three- or four-year estimate for a successful disperser “would be completely out the window.” 

“In my mind, hunting would put connectivity at grave risk,” he said. “I really object to the tone of intolerance that exists in many of these state plans. They look at grizzly bears as a competing interest with everything else.” 

“In my mind, hunting would put connectivity at grave risk.”

Chris Servheen, Former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly bear recovery coordinator

Montana officials, he said, are talking out of both sides of their mouths by prioritizing connectivity while simultaneously saying they would allow hunting in linkage habitat.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is weighing whether to attempt a third go at delisting grizzlies — a process Wyoming is suing over to move it along

Ahead of the federal agency’s analysis, the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho forged a pact that outlined the parameters of grizzly bear hunting — potentially with few restrictions along the ecosystem’s periphery —  and other aspects of management. That agreement called for a 13% reduction in the grizzly population within a monitoring area where bear numbers are counted. There would likely be even heavier hunting and no firm requirements to maintain grizzlies at all outside that zone. Roughly 40% of occupied grizzly range is outside of the monitoring area. 

Just passing through

If hunting were layered atop other conflicts already constraining the grizzly range, bears would have an even tougher time establishing and persisting in the most people-packed connectivity areas of west-central Montana. 

Connectivity, however, does not require persistent habitation. 

“That’s sometimes misinterpreted by some people: That you need occupation,” van Manen said. “You don’t. You don’t need resident bears to connect genetically.” 

A single dispersing male that successfully makes the trek south and spreads his genes would do the trick, he said. 

Costello shared preliminary findings at the Cody meeting from research investigating potential Yellowstone-to-Glacier region grizzly bear corridors. U.S. Geological Survey ecologist Sarah Sells, University of Montana biologist Paul Lukacs and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks employees Lori Roberts and Milan Vinks collaborated on the study. 

There are several primary linkage paths, according to maps Costello presented and discussed with WyoFile. The two most direct routes shoot more or less straight northwest to southeast. The easternmost corridor skirts Helena and Bozeman, Montana by way of the Big Belt, Bridger and Gallatin mountain ranges, while another direct linkage route runs from the Boulder and Highland mountains down the Tobacco Roots and into the Madison Range. 

Likely corridors that could connect grizzly bears from the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem skirt major Montana cities like Bozeman, Butte, Helena and Missoula. Data in this map is preliminary. (Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks)

“We have observations of bears in all of the mountain ranges I just mentioned except for the Tobacco Roots and the Bridgers,” Costello said. “So they’re halfway there.” 

The modeling predicted grizzly bear use of linkage areas based on several habitat qualities, but foremost was the greenness of the landscape. Mountains, forests and riparian areas rank higher, whereas sagebrush steppe and high plains environments rank lower. 

Another component tracked the “forest edge,” Costello said, which is a particular productive part of the landscape that grizzly bears prefer. 

The model also factored in the habitat preferences of real-world Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem grizzlies. 

“The way that we ran the analysis is we simulated each bear’s model on the landscape,” Costello said.

Similarly, the model accounted for habitat qualities that grizzlies tend to avoid: roads and housing. The likelihood of conflict nearer to humans is another important factor for predicting where grizzly bears can persist in the currently grizzly-less void.

Island life

Even without connectivity, van Manen said, the Yellowstone ecosystem population is on good ground genetically. “With the current population size,” he said, “that concern is decades away — and probably more than decades.” 

In the absence of a successful grizzly bear dispersal south, wildlife managers have pledged to force the issue. The tri-state pact commits the states to translocating “at least two” bears from outside the Greater Yellowstone into the region by 2025 unless migration is detected in the interim. 

That’s not an ideal outcome, in Servheen’s view: “Allowing this to happen naturally is really important,” he said.

Moving bears from one ecosystem to another is dependent on “political whims” and agency administrators. Having that fallback option also deprioritizes good planning, he said. 

“The end result is really poor conservation and poor management,” Servheen said. “I don’t think driving them around is a good solution.” 

Grizzly bear 399 and her four cubs of eat molasses-enriched grain left outside a home in the Solitude subdivision south of Moose in the fall of 2020. Grizzly attractants in residential areas litter Montana’s unoccupied bear range and decrease the odds of an animal successfully dispersing south to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

If a grizzly bear does bridge the 35-mile gap it will have to cross interstate highways, settled valleys and other human obstacles. Those barriers, van Manen said, inhibit the already sluggish expansion of a species that biologically has a slow “life history strategy. 

“They live longer, and can afford for that process to take a longer time,” he said. 

Even so, due to decades of conservation and range expansion, connectivity might have already occurred. There is a time delay in crunching data and completing parentage analyses from grizzly bear bloodwork, van Manen said. The bear that showed up in the Snowy Mountains, for example, was sampled in 2021, but biologists didn’t realize it came from the Beartooths until this year due to normal delays in processing its genetics.

“For all we know,” van Manen said, “we might already have genetic connectivity, but have just not documented it yet.” 

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