Board covers its tracks, keeps loopholes

There are many reasons to be disturbed, disgusted and dismayed by our state's current wildlife management regime, if you're someone who wants more than moose or caribou meat in the freezer or trophies for the floor and walls. This was proved once again at the recent Board of Game meeting in Anchorage.

A glutton for punishment, I sat through many hours of testimony and deliberations while board members continued their unprecedented and escalating war on wolves and bears.

Despite widespread public opposition -- and questionable rationale -- the BOG unanimously approved the aerial shooting of wolves on the Kenai Peninsula to "boost" a moose population limited by the available habitat.

Even BOG chair Cliff Judkins wondered, "If we get more (moose) calves, how are we going to feed them?" Naturally he voted with the rest to kill wolves anyway, when the evidence indicates diminished habitat and food supplies are keeping moose numbers low.

While the board postponed action on proposed bear snaring in Southwest Alaska, it did approve a North Slope bear-killing program to increase musk oxen numbers. So, another first: For the first time since statehood, the Department of Fish and Game may shoot grizzlies from planes and helicopters in what BOG member Ted Spraker calls "a surgical, ethical approach ... a picture-perfect program."

Now that the state allows the snaring and aerial shooting of bears -- including sows and cubs -- one might reasonably ask: What's left?

The answer: poison.

I'd like to say with certainty that the state will never use poison to kill bears. But until recently I was confident our wildlife officials wouldn't stoop so low as to trap bears or shoot them from helicopters. Who knows how they might eventually sidestep the decades-long ban on poison.

While the BOG's actions -- and its dismissal of widespread opposition to predator-kill policies -- are deeply disturbing, so is the board's process. Instead of being as transparent as possible, the board covers its tracks and leaves itself loopholes. And it does so at the advice of its attorney, Kevin Saxby.

I'll present one example here. In its discussion of the Unit 26B grizzly kill program, ADF&G employees and BOG members clearly stated their "intent" to limit the aerial shooting of grizzlies to department staff. Yet the wording of the proposal they approved states that "the commissioner may allow agents of the state (my emphasis) or department employees to conduct aerial, land and shoot, or ground based lethal removal of any sex or age of brown bear using state owned, privately owned, or chartered equipment, including helicopters."

After the Unit 26B bear-kill program was approved (7-0), I asked Spraker, Judkins and Saxby about the apparent discrepancy. Each agreed the wording meant the state can change its mind and include the public in its aerial-kill effort.

"We left that wording in for flexibility," Judkins explained. "Using members of the public is not the intent."

Ah, flexibility.

Judkins and Spraker suggested I talk to Saxby, their legal adviser, so I did.

"The department has stated its intent, but that intent can change," Saxby commented. "The commissioner may, at some future time, decide to include members of the public (as agents of the state)."

While Saxby didn't call the wording a loophole, he agreed it "leaves the door open" for other options, strategies not openly discussed during the board's deliberations. He also concurred that this is an example of "why there is so much public angst" over the state's wildlife management policies and strategies.

His admission surprised me, as did his nonchalance and that of Spraker and Judkins, further evidence that the BOG and ADF&G care neither what the public thinks nor whether their actions offend a broad swath of Alaskans.

The question for Alaskans, then, is when will our "angst" -- and a growing distrust -- be translated into action? Change will only come when we demand it.

Nature writer Bill Sherwonit is an Alaska Voices blogger and the author of 13 books. Recently he wrote an essay for the Anchorage Press, "Alaska's newest wildlife experiment: snaring and shooting brown bears."