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New book about Alaska wildlife management disappoints

Rick Sinnott
Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

I finally have something in common with Anchorage writer Peter Porco besides an appreciation of poetry. Both of our former bosses just published memoirs of their professional careers.  

Porco’s boss was Howard Weaver, the legendary reporter and editor of the Anchorage Daily News from the 1970s through the early 1990s. Porco recently reviewed Weaver’s new book, “Write Hard, Die Free: Dispatches from the Battlefields and Barrooms of the Great Alaska Newspaper War.” 

My boss, Wayne Regelin, was the deputy director and director of the Alaska Division of Wildlife Conservation for 14 years. After that, he served as deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for four years. His book, “Fish Politics and Wolf Wars: A History of Fish and Wildlife Management in Alaska”, is available from the publisher.

Few interesting details

Regelin’s career as a wildlife biologist in Alaska spanned 30 years. He started as a moose research biologist on the Kenai Peninsula in 1977. However, more than half of his career, from about 1988 to 2006, was in Juneau, directing research and management of the state’s wildlife and working with the legislature. After two decades of negotiating the crossroads of politics and wildlife management, Regelin knows where the crash victims are buried. But unlike Weaver’s deeply personal and lively account of newspaper journalism, Regelin’s book could hardly be drier. Rest assured, the history of wildlife management in Alaska is anything but dry.

History can be presented two ways. In school it’s often taught with the main emphasis on names, laws, battles, and dates. Hence, most people lose interest in history at an early age. Likewise, Regelin’s book is packed with names and dates, but contains few interesting details or anecdotes.

Much more compelling interpretations of our past rely on the complex interaction of personalities, places, and time periods. I didn’t find a single direct quote in Regelin’s book, much less the animated conversations recounted in Weaver’s memoir. People have strong opinions on wildlife, and management decisions are often controversial. Few Alaskans are unfamiliar with Gov. Wally Hickel’s epigrammatic “You can’t just let nature run wild.” Whether or not you agree with his perspective, just reading that statement will make you laugh or cringe. Hickel had a lot of influence over wildlife management during his term and a half as Alaska’s governor and two years as President Richard Nixon’s Interior secretary. An historical account peppered with such colorful observations is hard to put down. Often the best way to inform is to entertain.

An historian, Morgan Sherwood, wrote the most entertaining and informative account of the early politics of wildlife management in 1981. In “Big Game in Alaska: A History of Wildlife and People” Sherwood surveyed the historical records related to wildlife management in Alaska from the territory’s purchase in 1867 to World War II, combing through hundreds of books, scientific articles, government reports, official and personal letters, magazine and newspaper articles, interviews, films, and even scrapbooks for relevant insights. Several other books have reviewed specific aspects of the history of wildlife management, for example, the creation of national parks and wildlife refuges or early wolf control efforts. What we lack is a detailed, comprehensive history of the tumultuous decades since World War II.

Regelin launched his book with a synopsis of Alaska Native and Russian-American uses of wildlife. Unfortunately, he continued using broad strokes to characterize the issues that dominated Alaska since the 1970s, the period with which he is most familiar. This was the era of controversial policies, laws, suits and countersuits to establish the bounds of the state’s rural subsistence preference, the federal takeover of marine mammals and wildlife management on federal lands, modern predator control, and intensive management. Someone needs to sort through these issues and try to make some sense of how we arrived at our present state of affairs. Regelin is very familiar with wildlife science and policies, has worked with most, if not all, of the principal actors – biologists, administrators, leaders of user groups, legislators. He’s uniquely positioned to write a tell-all account of the scandals, failures, and accomplishments of recent decades. His book doesn’t deliver the goods.

Maybe no one author or volume can anymore. Any one of the above issues could fill a book if one were to do it justice. But it’s certainly worth the effort.

Clash with Faiks 

On rare occasions, Regelin let a sliver of light escape. Like when he mentioned how Jan Faiks, then president of the Alaska Senate, made it a “personal crusade” to terminate Alaska’s Wildlife, the popular magazine published by Fish and Game for over two decades. According to Regelin, “She never explained why she did not like the magazine but claimed it competed with private publishers.” Faiks’ censorship was successful, and the magazine hasn’t been published since 1993.

Regelin’s book wanted a better editor. I found a dozen or more misspelled words. Once a surname was spelled two ways in the same paragraph. While Regelin is a competent writer, unfortunate grammatical slips were too frequent. For example, he occasionally used a plural when he needed a singular verb or vice versa. Editors are important. At least that’s what my editor tells me.

Knowing Regelin, his facts are in order even if his spelling and grammar slip a little. And that is the best reason for purchasing his book. It should serve well as a reference to help pinpoint names and dates. I’m not sorry I bought the book.

But if you’re looking for an entertaining book about a wildlife biologist in Alaska, I highly recommend several biographies and autobiographies written about or by Adolph Murie, Sam O. White, Jim Brooks, Jim King, and Will Troyer that I reviewed last fall.

Alaskans are fortunate in having a selection of excellent books on regional wildlife and several fascinating memoirs by old-time wildlife biologists. What we need now is a detailed account of the politics of wildlife management from an insider. What every insider knows is, it ain’t pretty. But, like E. Estyn Evans wrote about the dunghill outside the front door of every Irish cottage in the 19th century, “The muck symbolizes the fertility of the farm.”

Regelin is an insider. He could have written a page-turner. It didn’t materialize, but I’m rooting for another serious attempt. Here’s my unsolicited recommendation for the sequel.

First, let someone else write about the fish. It’ll be tough enough to capture the myriad nuances of wildlife management in Alaska. Regelin should compile a list of at least a hundred influential and outspoken people he dealt with. Search the newspapers, journals, and books for relevant information on these people and their issues. Interview them, if possible, and talk to others who knew and worked with them. And then roll up his sleeves, plunge his arms up to his elbows in the dung heap, grab a double fistful of the stinking, organic muck, and show us exactly what we’ve been using to fertilize the farm.

Regelin can do it. I’d be happy to edit the book for free. No extra charge for egging him on.

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