Truth or consequences in predator control

According to the Nov. 18 Clarion letter by Ted Spraker (Chair, Board of Game) and Doug Vincent-Lang (Director, Division of Wildlife Conservation, Alaska Department of Fish and Game), a several-fold increase in the Kenai brown bear quota this year has been a “market correction” to “stabilize” an otherwise increasing bear population. Really?

Economic “market corrections” occur when negotiable assets have been greatly over- or under-valued, usually as the result of someone manipulating the market through disinformation. That’s what happened when mortgage lenders and credit rating agencies colluded, leading to an enormous real estate bubble that burst in 2008. The needle which burst that balloon was truth. Had the truth about mortgage soundness emerged much sooner, the bubble could never have grown very large and the resulting damage would have been miniscule.

“Market corrections” are not manipulations by managers, but uncontrollable backlashes triggered by the unintended consequences of management. “Corrections” in Nature likewise occur when species or ecosystems are manipulated according to wishful thinking or political correctness rather than according to valid scientific understanding.

Recent BOG members have believed that the primary responsibility of game management is putting as much ungulate meat as possible on our tables. Allegedly, the less moose meat eaten by wolves and bears, the more will be left for us. If that seemingly common sense notion is true, then decimating predators might be the right thing to do.

However, there are numerous reasons for doubting that. Rates of reproduction and survival in a moose population depend heavily on the quality and quantity of food, both of which can be enhanced by predators.

■ Quality: depends on protein concentration. Plant protein production is limited by nitrogen. In our cold wet climate, transfer of nitrogen from air to soil is insufficient. That deficiency is best compensated where moose browse is fertilized with the dung of salmon-fed bears. How far can bear or salmon numbers be reduced without depriving moose of protein-rich forage?

■ Quantity: Snowshoe hares compete with moose for browse. How severely does that competition impact moose, especially during peaks in hare numbers? How much do moose benefit from limiting hare numbers through predation by wolves, lynx and other carnivores?

Bears and wolves not only subtract from moose survival via predation; they also add to moose survival and reproduction via nutrition. Under what conditions would benefits that moose derive from bears and wolves outweigh losses to predation? Valid answers to this question should govern managing predators to maximize moose harvest. Yet, instead of providing these answers, the BOG and ADF&G administrators ignore the questions, as well as skepticism by both independent and in-house scientists. ADF&G biologists who voiced doubts were reprimanded and the whole scientific arm of ADF&G was forbidden to discuss these issues publicly. Scientists who try to practice governmental transparency, and management by fact rather than fiat, find themselves unemployable. Why muzzle scientists? Are the BOG and the ADF&G administrators afraid that needles of truth will burst a bubble of disinformation?

Nature isn’t governed by what we understand or misunderstand. It isn’t governed by our motives, however noble or venal. Water will continue running downhill anyway; and moose populations will suffer the consequences of mismanagement, be that having too many predators or too few.

The Refuge is holding a hearing on emergency closure of the brown bear season Monday at the River Center, 6-9 p.m.

Stephen F. Stringham, PhD, lives in Soldotna. He is a Consulting Wildlife Biologist (specializing in predator-prey ecology and behavior).

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