State's wilderness at risk: Wildlife deserves better than a special-interest holocaust

Posted: Monday, March 30, 2009

Alaska is a dream whose grandeur is in the grip of special interests who increasingly favor exploitation over preservation. The regions of Alaska under state control are no less than irreplaceable links in America's last great intact ecosystems. We entrust the health of this world treasure to a cabal of state agencies, including the governor, Legislature, Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) and the Board of Game (BOG).

If ADF&G biologists were allowed purely scientific input with this management equation, we could have confidence in the health of what may be Alaska's most important resource: its wilderness. This, of course, assumes that healthy intact ecosystems are the management goal.

Reality reminds us that special interest politics rules this biological realm. State biologists can be asked to provide guidelines to grow unsustainably high numbers of moose and caribou, or we can ask them to provide for the wildlife diversity necessary to maintain the health of wild places that have sustained native peoples for thousands of years. The answers to these biological questions are profoundly different.

Recently we watched as the ADF&G submitted last-minute regulation recommendations to the BOG that reminded many of us of the wolf and bear slaughters of the 1950s. Part of this latest regulatory change allows the gassing of wolf pups in their dens. The BOG cover for these extreme programs is now called "managing for abundance," a catch phrase for an anti-science idea formerly called intensive management. The concept here is that we can farm Alaska's moose and caribou by eliminating wolves and bears.

While the term "eliminating" may be challenged, the biological impact of killing on this ADF&G recommended scale is the same. The removal of 85 percent of any apex predator will have an impact on all the moving parts of complex ecosystems, including plant life, bird life and fish.

It is this natural diversity that is being sacrificed, the same diversity that brings wildlife viewers from around the world to spend their money in Alaska. Yes, I know, industrialized hunting brings money to the last frontier, but compared to wildlife viewing, it's pocket change.

Ornithology, bear viewing and wildlife photography are among the growing visitor interests, while the number of Americans venturing north to hunt continues to contract. What happens to the current reality that gives hunters 100 percent of the say in managing Alaska's wildlife, when it becomes apparent that Alaska's wildlife is worth more alive than dead?

Note that the BOG is made up of 100 percent hunters. Other interests are given no place at the management table, regardless of economic or biological impact.

Don't extreme predator control advocates benefit the true subsistence hunters? Not really. The six control regions have everything to do with for-profit industrialized hunting, not any traditional subsistent harvest. It is those of us advocating for natural diversity who have long supported a rural subsistence priority.

Conversely, the Alaska Outdoor Council (AOC) has led the fight to deny a subsistence priority for those with a real need for wild meat. The BOG, Legislature, ADF&G and governor all have a long history of dancing to the AOC tune. This special interest trophy hunting organization takes no prisoners as they promote a predator holocaust across much of Alaska's wilderness.

How can scientifically responsible wildlife management become part of the regulatory control of Alaska's wildlife? The first step is by bringing diverse representation to the BOG. With a governor entrenched in the kill-'em-all camp, diversity on the BOG will not be flowing from her appointments. The only feasible option would be an initiative that mandates BOG diversity. This would be in line with the state constitution that states Alaska's wildlife be managed for all Alaskans (not just hunters).

Polling indicates Alaskans strongly favor this "all Alaskans" concept, but let there be no doubt about the difficulty of creating a "Board of Wildlife," as it might be renamed.

Another improvement would be to allow state biologists who have positions other than the current politically controlled version to have a voice in management recommendations. Many biologists now working for the ADF&G are forced to remain silent as accepted biological standards are ignored and the department plays political games with wildlife that belongs to all Alaskans.

Accepted biological standards are, as examples, those of the National Research Council and the American Society of Mammalogists, both of which have voiced concerns about the lack of science that is the current regulatory norm.

Many of us know biologists who strongly disagree with the weakly justified, poorly executed and minimally monitored predator control programs that use highly controversial methods to rob Alaska of any semblance of natural diversity.

Alaska's wildlife deserves much better than the special-interest wolf and bear holocaust being served up by political appointees.

John Toppenberg is the director of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance in Anchorage. He lives in Sterling.



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