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Bill to sell Alaska wildlife to the highest bidder gains momentum

Rick Sinnott
Dall sheep permits are by far the most valuable to nonresident hunters. The first Dall sheep permit auctioned off in 1997 went for $200,000. y entonces / cc via flickr

Brace yourself for another excuse to give away Alaska wildlife. Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, and 12 other state representatives have sponsored a bill that will double the number of big game permits donated to organizations to auction or raffle off, often to wealthy nonresident hunters. This bill is unrelated to another bill that seeks to authorize qualified organizations to auction or raffle off “big bull moose derby” tickets

HB 161 was recently passed by the House and is now being considered by the Senate. As a parting shot, after the House passed the bill, Rep. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, added her name to the list of co-sponsors.

Governor’s permits

The existing law, in effect since 1997, was a good-faith effort to raise funds for wildlife law enforcement and conservation by allowing the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the governor to give a handful of special hunting permits -- called governor’s permits -- to qualified organizations.  

Fish and Game could donate one permit to harvest a bison from the Delta bison herd, but only to a nonprofit corporation established to promote fish and wildlife law enforcement. Up to four elk harvest permits from the Etolin Island herd in Southeast Alaska could be donated only to nonprofits that promoted management of hunted species, transplantation of species, and hunting and fishing. Finally, the department could donate up to two permits each year for harvesting each of the following species: Dall sheep, bison, musk ox, brown or grizzly bear, moose, caribou, and wolf.  Qualified organizations in this final category could fit any of the above criteria.

Qualified organizations auctioned or raffled off the permits, and most of the proceeds went into the Fish and Game Fund after the organization deducted administrative costs. As a small, added incentive, the law allowed organizations to keep 10 percent of the net proceeds in addition to their costs.

Winning bids for auctioned permits have been all over the board. In the past five years the winning bids for musk ox permits have ranged from $1,600 to $6,500. Caribou permits have gone for $600 to $8,100. Bison permits have ranged from $7,500 to $11,250. Moose permits have ranged from no bids to $21,000. Brown bear permits have ranged from $2,000 to $35,000. Permits for a Dall sheep hunt have been most in demand, ranging from $15,000 to $180,000.

Dall sheep permits are by far the most valuable to nonresident hunters. The first Dall sheep permit auctioned off in 1997 went for $200,000. 

Since 2009, winning bids for all species have totaled $499,100 and the department’s share has been $459,580. More than 40 nonprofit organizations have participated in the program since 1997, generating more than $1 million for state wildlife management projects. This funding is typically used to leverage federal matching dollars and has been used to fund research on Dall sheep and other big game animals.

HB 161 logic

The existing law was intended to offer some incentive to nonprofit organizations to raise money for conservation and management of wildlife. It was never intended to be a major source of funding for the organizations. HB 161 turns that logic on its head. As proposed, the law would increase state funding for nonprofit organizations while providing much less benefit to wildlife.

In her sponsor statement, Gattis says she introduced the bill because the original law is “dated” and groups “have become ambivalent about participating.” She proposed increasing the share kept by qualified organizations to 30 percent of the net profits. According to Gattis, increasing the number of permits and species available to hunt will “further invigorate the game auction process.” By doing so, she believes, the state will “encourage the hunting community to work in partnership with state agencies to foster ethical and competent hunting skills and assume responsibility for the stewardship of the resource.”

I served in Vietnam, and this sounds like the “we had to destroy the village to save the village” line of thinking.

In other words, it’s a bunch of baloney. The state shouldn’t have to bribe hunting organizations to support wildlife conservation or teach hunter ethics and education. The state shouldn’t have to create innovative funding sources for nonprofit hunting organizations.

Nevertheless, Fish and Game Director of Wildlife Conservation Doug Vincent-Lang supported the idea. In testimony before the House Resources Standing Committee last April, Vincent-Lang told legislators it may be time to “tweak” the program. He assured them the bill would make only “minor” changes to existing law.

Contributing to the delinquency of a 'minor'

Vincent-Lang should know better, but he’s a fisheries biologist without any experience in wildlife management who was appointed director of wildlife conservation by Gov. Sean Parnell. You may recall that Vincent-Lang was the state’s endangered species coordinator for several years. I don’t consider one to be practicing wildlife management if he or she merely says “no” to every federal proposal to include a species on the threatened or endangered species list.

For the state’s director of wildlife conservation to tell legislators HB 161 would constitute “minor” changes to the existing law is contributing to the delinquency of a “minor.” In actuality, the bill is rife with flaws.

HB 161 would add two species -- mountain goats and black bears -- and more than double the number of permits authorized under existing law. Permit numbers are a moving target while the bill is under consideration, but according to supporting documents, the department would be able to donate one elk, bison and Dall sheep permit to organizations, with 100 percent of the proceeds to be kept by the organization. The department could donate another two Dall sheep permits and four permits for each of the following species: bison, musk ox, brown or grizzly bear, black bear, moose, caribou, mountain goat, elk and wolf. Thus, the number of permits the state could provide for hunters wealthy enough to bid on them would increase from 19 to 41 per year.

For these latter permits, the organizations may subtract administrative costs and keep an additional 30 percent of the net proceeds. Less of the money from each permit would go to conservation and wildlife law enforcement. During last year’s House Resources hearing, Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, pointed out that raising the amount organizations were allowed to keep from 10 to 25 percent would result in a loss of $70,000 in revenue to the state each year, all other things being equal. How much less money would end up in the department’s coffers is uncertain. Vincent-Lang didn’t believe the state would lose money, despite getting less for each permit, because more permits would be issued.

But that sword cuts both ways. First, all of those additional permits will be coming out of the limited pool of animals that any Alaskan may hunt. Second, the top bidders are paying for a unique experience. If four permits are available, but those hunters have to compete for the biggest trophy, the value of each permit is likely to plummet. It’s doubtful that by increasing the number of permits the department will raise any more money for conserving wildlife.

More money for politicians and lobbyists

HB 161 also changed the definition of a qualifying organization to one that “promotes education in outdoor traditions and that conducts conservation and wildlife protection programs.” This is hunter-speak for a myriad of hunting organizations, big and small. The idea that all of the wildlife being offered up for auction belongs to all Alaskans, not just those who are members of hunting organizations, doesn’t seem to have occurred to the bill’s sponsors. But much more troubling -- to many hunters and nonhunters alike -- the bill erases the prohibition on these organizations using the proceeds to contribute to political candidates, ballot propositions, or lobbyists.

Under the existing law, the proceeds “may not be used to make a contribution to any candidate for political office or to any organization supporting or opposing ballot propositions or to pay expenses associated with lobbying the Legislature or administration.” With one wave of her magic legislative wand, Gattis has removed that pesky impediment from her bill.

Vincent-Lang told legislators that the department would tell qualified organizations that the money cannot be used for such political purposes as lobbying. But that’s not the same as prohibiting the practice by law. An organization could easily rationalize that “promoting education in outdoor traditions” includes lobbying legislators and the governor. It wouldn’t be the first time. And there are no provisions for auditing expense accounts to ensure that an organization is toeing the line.

There are valid reasons why this prohibition was included in the original law. Hunters and hunting organizations don’t all think alike. Some hunters aren’t fond of bear baiting, some promote archery over firearms, some don’t want trophies sold on the open market. Why would we want the money raised from the auction of 41 big-game permits to be frittered away to give selected groups of hunters a leg up on everyone else? The proceeds should be used for conservation purposes, including law enforcement, which benefit all Alaskans. That’s the intent of the existing law.

More money for out-of-state hunting organizations

It gets worse. The bill would repeal the provision that an organization must be “based in the state” to qualify. Under existing law, national organizations can qualify for free permits if they are active in Alaska. But by removing the provision, any out-of-state hunting organization can be given permits. Do we really want to hand out big-game permits to fund hunting organizations or wildlife conservation efforts outside of Alaska?

Here’s another amendment that’s really sneaky. Under the existing law, the governor’s permittee “may exercise the privileges conveyed by the permit, license, or tag only in accordance with applicable law.” The department has always interpreted this to mean governor’s permittees must hunt only during open seasons, only in open areas, and only using the methods allowed in that season and area. For example, a governor’s permittee couldn’t hunt with a rifle in an archery-only area or season.

The bill replaces “applicable law” with “conditions set by the commissioner.” That is code for 'anything goes.' Perhaps you are one of the lucky souls who have finally beat the odds by winning a Dall sheep permit for the western Chugach Mountains in the annual state drawing lottery. Some hunters have waited 20 years or more for one of these permits. What if the commissioner or her boss, the governor, decides to let one or more of the governor’s permittees loose in your hunt area a week before the regular hunting season. Or lets them use rifles in a hunt area normally restricted to archery. Or lets them hunt in an area closed to hunting.

If I were you, I’d be pissed. And it will happen. Hunting guides, organizations that have auctioned governor’s permits, and the winning hunters themselves perennially request special considerations above and beyond what all other hunters are granted. Until now, the department has held firm. Don’t expect Vincent-Lang to stick his neck out on this one if HB 161 is enacted by the legislature.

Alaska wildlife belongs to Alaskans

Giving away big-game permits has always been a bit contentious. After all, the Alaska Constitution requires that “Wherever occurring in their natural state, fish, wildlife, and waters are reserved to the people for common use.” As long as 90 percent of the net proceeds were coming back into the state budget, for use in wildlife conservation, a law that allowed the state to donate big-game permits to organizations didn’t seem like much of a stretch. But allowing organizations to retain 30 percent of the proceeds, in addition to the cost of administering the auction or raffle, seems like a big stretch. I’m no attorney, but it seems as though HB 161 could easily be challenged in court, if enacted into law.

Alaska wildlife belongs to Alaskans. Most of us are willing to share it with tourists. If wealthy out-of-state hunters are willing to jump through the same hoops for a chance to hunt our wildlife as resident hunters, in addition to hiring guides in many instances, we can tolerate that too. But our Legislature should stop asking us to hand our wildlife to wealthy nonresident hunters and out-of-state hunting organizations on a silver platter.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Contact him at  rickjsinnott@gmail.com