Do Bears Get Shot in the Woods?
Alaska Won’t Release Photos of Aerial Slaughter of Nearly 100 Brown Bears
Washington, DC —The State of Alaska is not shy about shooting down scores of bears from helicopters but does not want to share evidence of its actions, according to correspondence released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The state is refusing to release any photographs or internal message about a recent aerial gunning operation that was the largest lethal removal of predators in Alaskan history.
In a three-week period ending on June 4, 2023, Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADF&G) employees killed 94 brown bears (including cubs), five black bears, and five wolves through aerial gunning from helicopters. The shootings occurred across 1,200 square miles of tundra in Southwest Alaska. It is believed to be the largest predator removal in state history.
Earlier this month, Rick Steiner, an ecologist, former University of Alaska-Fairbanks professor, and Chair of PEER’s Board of Directors, submitted a request under the state’s Public Records Act seeking any photographs, e-mail, or text messages about the operation. In a letter dated June 26, Rick Green, Special Assistant to the ADFG Commissioner, indicated that the agency would not produce photos or texts about the operation, but not because they did not exist:
“No photographs were or will be collected as ADF&G does not need photographs for any purpose; any photographs were merely transitory records that are now beyond their retention age as ADF&G has no administrative need for them.”
“This was a publicly funded activity regarding publicly managed resources on public lands, conducted by public employees, ostensibly on behalf of the public,” Steiner noted. “Photos were obviously taken, but this agency does not want them to see the light of day.”
In the same letter, ADF&G also refused to produce text messages under a similar rationale:
“Text messages, if any, would not be public records for the same reason that photographs would not be public records, ADF&G did not and will not collect them because it does not need them for any purpose; they are merely transitory records that are now beyond their retention age.”
Agencies commonly produce photographs and text messages in response to PEER public record requests. A state refusing to provide these records on the grounds they serve no administrative purpose is questionable. At least one law firm has already served notice that there may soon be litigation over this massive bear lethal removal and that these records would be relevant evidence and should not be destroyed.
“The fact that photos and texts are embarrassing or incriminating is not a legal basis for an agency withholding them,” added Pacific PEER Director Jeff Ruch, an attorney with more than 30 years of experience in public records litigation. “A picture is worth a thousand words; this agency recognizes the public would be horrified to see what this slaughter actually looked like.”