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Alaska wildlife chief appointment raises new questions at Fish and Game

Rick Sinnott
Photo by Dave Harbour, www.northerngaspipelines.com

OPINION: After a spate of euphoria, Alaska Division of Wildlife Conservation employees have once again adopted the downcast gaze and shuffling gait of inmates in the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Last week’s exaggerated state of bliss and well-being was occasioned by the resignation of their director, Corey Rossi. Rossi, who was neither popular nor qualified for his position, has been indicted on 12 Class A misdemeanors, mostly for falsifying information on official records reporting harvests of four black bears, all before he was appointed director.

Recurrence of the symptoms of dysphoria, after a two-week remission, was triggered by the announcement that Doug Vincent-Lang would be new acting director. Cora Campbell, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, appointed Vincent-Lang on Jan. 25 to replace interim acting director Dale Rabe. Rabe has a doctoral degree and plenty of experience in wildlife conservation, including his current position as the division's deputy director.

Vincent-Lang is a fisheries biologist who was chosen during the administration of Gov. Sarah Palin to be a special assistant to the commissioner of Fish and Game. He soon became the state’s endangered species coordinator. Alaska has no endangered fish. Species on the federal endangered and threatened list include four birds, eight whales, Steller sea lion, northern sea otter, polar bear, wood bison, three sea turtles, and the Aleutian shield fern, none of which Vincent-Lang knows much about. However, he has a penchant for doing what his supervisors tell him, and that skill has been increasingly marketable in the Department of Fish and Game ever since Frank Murkowski became governor in 2002.

In her email informing wildlife conservation staff about Vincent-Lang’s appointment, Campbell wrote, "Recent events serve to emphasize the importance of upholding public trust in the department and the integrity and credibility of our staff." And then she misspelled his name: "Doug-Vincent Lang." 

I wish Campbell meant what she said about the importance of upholding public trust in the department and the integrity and credibility of her staff, but her background, experience and handling of recent events suggest otherwise. Like Vincent-Lang, Campbell was a special assistant for several years, reporting directly to Palin and Parnell. Before that she was a lobbyist for a commercial fishing organization. Before that she obtained a degree in education. Before that, well, she was in high school. Campbell is a little over 30 years old. 

I’m not saying a 30-year-old is unqualified to head one of the state’s most professional and inherently controversial agencies. I mean, Napoleon Bonaparte was 31 years old when he wrested control of the French empire. One can pack a lot of experience and wisdom into 31 years. Unfortunately, Campbell seems to be light on the kind of professional education and experience that is critical in a commissioner of Fish and Game -- she had none that I'm aware of when Gov. Parnell appointed her, a little over a year ago.

Like Vincent-Lang, Campbell’s primary qualification is her ability to say yes to the person who signs her annual performance evaluation. If she can think for herself and think on her feet, she has kept those assets well hidden. As commissioner of Fish and Game, she has shown little interest or inclination to engage in wildlife management, leaving that chore to Rossi. 

And Campbell has bobbled the Rossi affair. She didn't put him on administrative leave when Alaska State Troopers told her he was under investigation for numerous game violations, acting only when Rossi was formally charged a month later. In her email to staff announcing Rossi’s resignation, she thanked him for his service to the department and said he was resigning for "personal reasons." I've waited for weeks to see a news release from her, admitting how disappointed she is that Rossi's lack of integrity and credibility has knocked the knees out from under her department and promising that she will find a replacement who will uphold the public trust. 

I'm still waiting.

The appointment of Vincent-Lang appears to be another poor choice for a top wildlife position in the Department of Fish and Game. Although Vincent-Lang has worked for the department for over 30 years, his wildlife experience is limited to the last few years. This experience does not inspire confidence. He has often been the person asked to justify the state’s opposition to endangered species management by the federal government in Alaska.

In February 2011 the Parnell administration told a judge that Cook Inlet beluga whales didn’t need special protection under the Endangered Species Act because the state would protect them with our coastal management program. Then Parnell and the Alaska Legislature let the state’s coastal management program expire on July 1.

In August, the Anchorage Daily News asked Vincent-Lang whether he planned to inform the judge of the loss. Vincent-Lang wrote to the reporter, "'The declaration was valid at the time I made it,' and declined to comment further." Scratch integrity. Two months later, in October 2011, the attorney general's office admitted in a lawsuit -- which sought to overturn the belugas' endangered species listing -- that the coastal management program had expired four months earlier. Scratch credibility.

Vincent-Lang was also involved in the controversy stirred up last year by the dismissal of two state experts from the federal beluga whale recovery team. The recovery team, required by the policies and procedures implementing the Endangered Species Act, was comprised of a technical panel and a stakeholder panel. The various stakeholders, who were tasked with providing political and socioeconomic input, included developers, subsistence users, conservation groups, representatives from local communities and, of course, the state of Alaska. Vincent-Lang was the state's representative on the stakeholder panel. The technical panel included scientific experts from several state and federal agencies. The state was represented on the technical panel by two Fish and Game biologists with expertise in marine mammals and the fish that belugas eat. The technical panel was instructed to stick to science and not represent the political stance of any stakeholder group, including their agency or organization.

The Parnell administration doesn't tolerate independent thinking, even if its purpose is to provide technical or scientific advice to decision makers. A new, Orwellian policy requires state scientists to espouse only the state's official position, as dictated by Parnell and his closest advisors. As a result, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency responsible for the recovery team, removed the two Fish and Game biologists from the technical panel.

But Vincent-Lang stayed on the stakeholder panel to represent the state’s nonscientific interests. He is an advocate of Parnell’s policy requiring state scientists to conform to nonscientific standards when they work with scientists and others outside of their agency. According to the Anchorage Daily News article, Vincent-Lang believes “scientists are encouraged to engage in vigorous debate inside their agencies, but that once a position is established, the state has a right to demand adherence to it.” 

Scientists who step outside the strict bounds of the state policy are liable to suffer the fate of Galileo, who announced in the 17th century that the sun was the center of our solar system. For contradicting the officially sanctioned belief that our Earth was the center of the solar system, the Pope’s men dragged the scientist to the inquisitors, who found him guilty of heresy and forced him to recant. Galileo spent the rest of his life under house arrest or, as it is known under the last three governors, a gag order.

Before the beluga debate heated up, the state was embroiled in a similar controversy over federal protection of polar bears under the Endangered Species Act. Vincent-Lang was in the middle of that one, too. Ignoring the advice of the department’s own scientific experts, he argued that federal polar bear experts had yet to offer convincing statistical proof that polar bear populations were declining. In response to the question "does the lack of statistical proof mean the population is stable?" Vincent-Lang replied, "They’re certainly not necessarily declining." Ladies and gentlemen, the new acting director of the Alaska Division of Wildlife Conservation.

My concern about Vincent-Lang's qualifications isn't as much about him as it is about the commissioner and governor. He isn't ethically challenged, like Rossi, and with his education and experience he might make a decent director of sport fisheries. Campbell could have done a lot worse. Vincent-Lang told me he hasn't thought about what he will do if Campbell offers him the job.

Vincent-Lang isn't likely to do much damage as the acting director of wildlife conservation, but the red flag has been run back up the flagpole. Choosing him as the acting director suggests that he may be offered the director position after a suitable period of mourning for Rossi. Gov. Parnell and Commissioner Campbell don't seem to grasp reality of the situation, which is that their Division of Wildlife Conservation is being restrained in a political straightjacket. Like watching a sane person attempting to free himself from the real thing, the frantic struggle would be funny if it weren't so serious.

Of course, it's also possible that Parnell and Campbell can't find a qualified, credible wildlife biologist or manager in the department who wants the job. I wouldn't want it (not that anybody's asking).  But somebody's got to do it. In the immortal words of McMurphy, when he was confronted with the anxiety, depression and unease of the inmates in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, "Which one of you nuts has got any guts?"

Alaska Dispatch encourages a diversity of opinion and community perspectives. The opinions expressed herein are those of the contributor and are not necessarily endorsed or condoned by Alaska Dispatch.Former state wildlife biologist Rick Sinnott retired in 2010 after nearly 30 years with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He was known during his time with the state for his outspokenness on wildlife issues -- particularly the way Anchorage residents interact with urban wildlife. Contact Rick Sinnott at rickjsinnott(at)gmail.com