Arctic Alaska’s Conservation Conundrum

February 2, 2012

WCS senior scientist Joel Berger reflects on how Alaska’s recent decision to cull an Arctic predator in order to protect its prey may redefine the ecosystem’s hierarchy in unforeseen ways.

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.

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.

Read more in Dr. Berger’s editorial on National Geographic NewsWatch.

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