Ted and Elaina Spraker tackle most things as a team, from hunting to Ted’s 14-year tenure on the Alaska Board of Game. He handles the science and decision-making on the board, and she goes to bat on the politics.
“I stay out of the politics,” Ted said in a Thursday interview.
Although the politics can get sticky, Elaina said she’s willing to engage to preserve the Board of Game’s process.
“In order to maintain that … I engage in that very passionately because that’s the vehicle used to keep the things that we love and keep people who need to concentrate on the science, keep them out of the politics,” she said. “That’s the reality of it.”
With his most recent confirmation as a member Board of Game, serving as chair, Ted Spraker becomes the second-longest continually tenured member of the board, and he’s not tired of taking on the state’s tough hunting issues yet. The Soldotna resident spent 28 years managing wildlife on the Kenai Peninsula before retiring in 2002 and accepted a nomination from then-governor Frank Murkowski to a seat on the Board of Game in 2003.
A hunter and a biologist, he said he keeps science at the forefront of his mind but always considers public interest as well. Alaskans of all stripes depend on and use game resources, both for food and as a cultural staple, and hunters contribute to wildlife conservation through their spending on licenses and firearms as well as their support for research on game species, he said.
The walls of Ted and Elaina’s home, set at a picturesque end of Tote Road south of Soldotna, feature moose racks and the mounted heads of big game they have taken. They speak fondly of the taste of black bear meat over brown bear and proudly process and pack their own game meat. Wild game meat is a major food staple for them, though they are tentatively planning to raise their own chickens in a coop modeled to match the house, which they also designed and built themselves.
They consider themselves conservationists, putting effective resource management first. The environmentalists who protest hunting as a practice and advocate for complete hunting and trapping bans they term preservationists. Environmental groups have gone after both the Board of Game and Ted personally over the years, targeting his support of predator control — killing predators to boost prey populations — among other views.
He’s stuck by his views, supporting what he terms active management of game stocks and saying the resource will always come first in the mind of the board — otherwise, there would be no hunting open on it.
“That’s what I always tell people, that if there’s hunting on a stock, that means it’s healthy,” Ted said.
Elaina goes to bat politically on game issues as well. As a regional coordinator for Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), she deals in federal policies professionally, working recently on the ongoing lawsuit over the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service’s rules restricting hunting practices on national wildlife refuges and preserves. Congress passed a joint house resolution in April overturning the rules, though some issues still remain to be resolved in court.
But it’s not always high conflict. At the meeting in February 2016, when the Board of Game took on a controversial proposal that would have required permits for domestic goats and sheep as a measure to prevent transmission of pneumonia to wild mountain goats and sheep, Elaina said she watched two stakeholder groups sit down together and discuss their concerns. Ultimately, the board voted to delay the issue for two years, until the November 2017 meeting.
“A lot of times, you have either the different groups going at each other’s throats and sometimes it’s not very pretty,” she said. “…They sat down in Fairbanks at the table several times and had really great reasonable conversations and had this willingness to work together instead of this, ‘Don’t give an inch.’ From my perspective, it was very hopeful.”
“We want to make sure that we’re very careful,” Ted said. “As a board member, I don’t want to have pneumonia spreading through all of our wild sheep when I had a chance to maybe do something about it.”
Proposition 90, as the goat and sheep permitting issue is titled, is one of several heated issues that will come up in the next several cycles. Another is a proposal to authorize a trap-neuter-return program for feral cats in the state, which proponents say would help control the spread of feral cats. Spraker said he was concerned about it because the cats would still be hunting — other states, like Hawaii, have already taken steps to deal with excessive feral cat predation on wild birds and other small animals. He said he expects an interesting conversation on the issue.
Wild sheep hunting regulations also stir emotion. The Board of Game passed a proposal in 2015 to ban using aircraft to spot sheep for hunting, an activity used primarily by guides for nonresident clients. Ted said he expects there to be significant effort to overturn the ban, and though he said he couldn’t speak for the board, he still supported the ban.
“I thought it was a good decision,” he said during a March confirmation hearing before the Senate Resources Committee. “It levels the playing field among sheep hunters.”
There are long-term issues as well, including balancing demand for use with conservation in existing wildlife populations. Over the next several years, the Board of Game will deal with the ongoing issues in the Nelchina caribou herd near Glennallen, which is a hotbed of political controversy involving subsistence harvesters and sport hunters, as well as the Western Arctic caribou herd harvest regulations. The board is also still wrangling with pressure from the public and the Legislature over the historic practice of trapping in Alaska, which currently has no restrictions beyond either local setbacks on trails, like in Juneau, or “common sense” practices not to set traps near public trails.
Atop that is the growing pressure from nonconsumptive users to have a place on the board to advocate for viewing and photographic uses of wildlife. Spraker said he was offended that nonconsumptive users would assert that the Board of Game does not look out for them and that the board deals with primarily hunting regulations and seasons.
“First of all, they’re probably going to be the most bored person on the board, and second, they’re probably not going to get a whole lot done because it’s going to be a one-to-six vote every time, because we’re there primarily to maintain and sustain healthy populations of wildlife, number one, no matter what,” he said. “Allowing opportunity is secondary to that. You always vote for the wildlife first.”
Spraker said during the confirmation hearing before the Senate Resources Committee that he plans for this to be his last term. He’s spent the better part of four decades in wildlife management and plans to fully retire after his sixth term, which would be a full 17 years on the Board of Game.
Throughout his time there, he said he’s relied on public comment and stakeholder input to inform his decisions. Science and public desire alone are not enough to make sound decisions — the two have to work together, he said.
“I listen to the people,” he said. “That gives me the insight. I like to hear that local knowledge, and I think all the board members are that way … the board process goes beyond science. Science is fundamental, we make sure the science is there, and beyond that, we look at what the public wants.”
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org.