Compass: Alaska's predator control programs are neither ethical nor sensible

Wildlife biologist Vic Van Ballenberghe enjoys a close encounter -- and a safe one -- with a grizzly bear July 20, 2008, at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center on the Seward Highway. Onlookers watched grizzlies interact over a meal of moose.

As I read John Schandelmeier's recent column ("In predator control, questions of ethics and efficacy," April 16) I found myself agreeing with most of its content until I came to the end. There I found the statement that "Alaska has some of the most sensible predator control laws in the United States." Sensible for their efficacy? Sensible biologically? Sensible in terms of ethics? In my view, none of our predator control programs qualify as sensible based on these criteria.

Schandelmeier correctly stated that liberalizing wolf and bear hunting and trapping seasons, bag limits and methods of taking these species is a big part of recent predator control. Beginning about 10 years ago, the Board of Game not only implemented aerial shooting of wolves over large areas but also extended wolf hunting seasons into late summer and spring, when hides are of low quality and pups are still dependent on adults or are unborn. Is this ethical? Is it sensible biologically? I know of no evidence that this measure increased prey populations significantly.

Were the wolf control programs sensible biologically? Not according to hundreds of wildlife biologists who signed two letters to two of Alaska's governors objecting to programs that were poorly justified, inadequately monitored and seldom properly evaluated. Other experts found that the Game Board failed to adopt recommendations of a blue ribbon panel of biologists that evaluated our control programs, found them deficient and suggested improvements.

Forty years ago when I first came to Alaska and for three decades thereafter, grizzly bears were managed as trophy animals with strict regulations, short seasons and low bag limits that were based, in part, on ethical grounds. Bear hunting drew nonresident trophy hunters to Alaska to pursue one of North America's most revered species. They brought money with them for guides, taxidermists, air taxi operators and others in the hunting industry.

Managers recognized the importance of grizzly bears as a special, valuable resource. They knew that our bear hunting programs were sustainable if carefully designed and implemented. And they knew that public perceptions of hunters required regulations incorporating ethical restraints including standards of fair chase.

But in the 1980s, research showed that grizzly and black bears were significant predators of moose and caribou and that reducing bear numbers sometimes resulted in prey increases and more game for hunters. Forty years ago, no one could have predicted what happened next. Who could have known that bears would be shot from airplanes, as they have been in recent years? Or that cubs and sows with cubs could be shot. Or that trapping bears would be legal. Or that bear body parts could be sold and black bears would be labeled furbearers, lumping them with species having no bag limits.

It seems that once the Game Board believed that more moose and caribou would result from declaring war on bears and adopting extreme measures, decades of carefully constructed regulations restraining hunters and preserving the trophy status of bears were reversed, ethical standards were dramatically lowered and bears assigned a status of predator or varmint.

These changing trends affecting the management and public perceptions of Alaska's large predators were highly controversial. Witness the three ballot initiatives to restrict aerial hunting of wolves in Alaska. But those who questioned the management programs were outnumbered by the hunting interests, and the policy makers today from the governor to the Legislature to the Game Board really are not much concerned with ethics or biology.

Schandelmeier did not address the question of who gets to decide if predator control is ethical. Based on the drastic changes in how we manage wolves and bears in recent years, can we trust the Game Board to set ethical standards? The hunting interests seem content to do so. But the rest of us who see wildlife as more than just targets for hunters are much less trusting. Bears and wolves should not be treated as our enemies. And we should not accept extreme hunting measures to reduce them by sacrificing sound ethical standards that were in place for decades.

Vic Van Ballenberghe is a moose and wolf biologist from Anchorage and a former Game Board member.