Alaska needs to stand up to feds' predator-control meddling

Paul Jenkins

The faded, credit card-size sticker was barely visible in the mud-spattered pickup truck's rear window. "Joe Vogler," it said, "was right."

Vogler, founder of the Alaskan Independence Party, was a nagging pain in the federal government's patoot forever, what with his incessant rabble-rousing and court challenges and Alaska secession efforts. His was a fiery voice for confrontation.

A Kansas farm boy with a law degree, Vogler -- slain by a thief in 1993 -- had no use for the feds or their imperious ways in his 20 or so years navigating Alaska politics. With the federal government owning and managing 65 percent of the state, it sometimes is easy to understand why.

Take, for instance, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's refusal -- since last May -- to approve state biologists' plans to kill seven wolves -- seven -- from helicopters in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge on windblown Unimak Island, at the tip of the Alaska Peninsula.

The idea is to reduce predation on the caribou calving grounds there to preserve a herd that once numbered in the thousands, but was reduced to 1,200 by 2002 -- and just 300 last year. Caribou calves nowadays, thanks in large part to the seven wolves the state wants to kill, are as rare on Unimak as giraffes and there may not be enough bulls to ensure the herd's survival. By any measure, the herd is in trouble. The 60 or so villagers at False Pass had depended on it for some of their subsistence needs until hunting was suspended in 2009.

Despite the dire need for action, The Associated Press reports, "federal officials say the (state's) plan showed potential to improve future subsistence opportunities but would have negative effects on natural diversity and wilderness character of the island."

Fish and Wildlife says it worries about treaty obligations and subsistence, too. It claims to consider them equally. People in the region say they believe subsistence is at the far end of the list.

Alaska manages its fish and game to feed people, the highest, most moral use of the resources. The feds' idea of management at Unimak, apparently, is no management. If the herd survives, good. If not, c'est la vie. They seem more concerned with appearances than reality -- and they love wolves.

It is no secret at Fish and Game that the state and the feds seldom work well together because of their differences; that while federal officials say they are willing to do what is necessary, they are not. "They will tell you one thing, and do another," one knowledgeable observer said.

There is a real federal reluctance to embrace predator control, and not only at Unimak. The international Chisana caribou herd at the headwaters of the White River is one example. The Mentasta herd south of the Wrangell Mountains is another. Both are dwindling in large part because of predation, and the federal government consistently balks at reducing predators' numbers.

Instead of moving to preserve prey herds, federal officials bring the same old dodge, the state says. First, a study. Then, any program to avoid killing predators. The problem? When the feds are finished, the predators are still there, doing what they do. The feds' efforts become a predator-feeding program.

Sure enough, in the Unimak case, there was an environmental study, 95,000 comments -- and predictable reticence about killing seven wolves. The state, however, has been allowed permits to import caribou bulls from the Alaska Peninsula and permits to monitor cows and calves. More food for predators.

The Alaska Board of Game last week did what it could by extending wolf hunting and trapping seasons on Unimak and expanding the predator control area. Nobody expects that to solve the problem. Without action, Alaska officials say, the herd and the wolves, too, could be lost.

This would be a nifty time for Alaska to challenge the feds' predator-coddling nonsense driven, at least in part, by letters and comments from people who do not live in Alaska. This would be a great time for Gov. Sean Parnell -- whose campaign platform had a plank about standing up to the federal government -- to stand up to the federal government.

At stake is Alaska's ability to carry out scientifically based, targeted, wildlife management without inane interference from wolf-coddling federal officials more attuned to what blue-hairs in Connecticut think than the subsistence realities of rural Alaska.

Joe Vogler, indeed, may have been right.

Paul Jenkins is editor of the AnchorageDailyPlanet. com.