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Political science at Alaska Fish and Game

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: July 6, 2016
  • Published December 21, 2010

I1214-afngn the beginning, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game was born of science. In the end, it has become more and more about politics. The agency that stopped federal efforts to eradicate wolves in Alaska, because the science didn't support it, has become the agency leading a fight against listing the polar bear as an endangered species even though the consensus of state wildlife biologists is that the bears clearly qualify for listing.

"It is a very sad state of affairs," said former state biologist John Schoen. "As alumni of an organization I was once very proud of, Fish and Game is, more and more over the past years, being managed under a political ideology, not science."

Schoen is by no means alone in that view. It is echoed by many former Fish and Game employees and quietly voiced by a fair number who still labor within the agency. Among the latter, there is now fear their jobs could be in danger if they say anything publicly. How, some wonder, has this fate befallen an organization that was supposed to be largely free of politics?

Even before Alaska became a state in 1959, the Alaska Legislature wrote laws intended to isolate Fish and Game from politics. Instead of rolling its responsibilities into a broad-based Department of Natural Resources that govern mining, forestry, oil and gas exploration, parks and more, as many states do, the authors of Alaska's Constitution called for an agency devoted to nothing but fish and wildlife, with a constitutional mandate to focus on the science needed to manage resources on a sustained yield basis.

To try to maintain the scientific focus within the agency, the Legislature set up a special regulatory Board to do the political dirty work of allocating resources between highly-competitive user groups in the 49th state. The Joint Board of Fisheries and Game, along with a Board-picked commissioner, were supposed to insulate the scientists from politics. The governor was left with the authority to fire a commissioner who went too far, but the Board and the Legislature were given unprecedented powers to control the process. The Board was to put together the list of commissioner candidates, from which a governor was to select one to be approved by the Legislature. Alaska's early governors usually left the Board alone to make its recommendations, and then picked from the Board's list.

Flash forward 50 years, though, and a lot has changed. Gov. Sean Parnell this year flipped the process of picking a commissioner on its head and handed the now Joint Boards of Fish and Game his pick without waiting for them to provide "a list of qualified persons" as statutorily mandated. And Parnell's pick is not a biologist trained in fisheries or wildlife management, or a scientific researcher. His pick is a former fisheries aide in the governor's office with a bachelor's degree in education and a background as an advocate for commercial fishing interests.

Those who know now-acting commissioner Cora Campbell praise her as smart and hardworking, but even some of her backers wonder how the Department of Fish and Game -- an agency that finds itself regularly under fire from commercial fishermen, anglers, wolf lovers, hunters, bird watchers and who knows who else -- can continue to function as a respected scientific organization as its leadership shifts steadily away from science toward politics.

As Campbell sees it, the way to do that is to push the science as it has always been pushed. "We have a cadre of biologists, and they do a lot of good work." She sees her role as an advocate for what they do best. "I have a lot of experience in policy," she said, and adds that she's taking over a department with a very capable staff that can help her with the tasks that are new. She is young, enthusiastic and seemingly well aware of her relative lack of experience.

"I know there has been some discussion of that issue," Campbell said response to criticism about her inexperience with wildlife management. But, she said she believes that in some ways what she is doing as Fish and Game commissioner is the same as what she was doing as an adviser to Gov. Sean Parnell. "You really are working on the same issues," Campbell said. "I've been doing this stuff."

The problem is that "this stuff" might be problematic. At a time when other states have been trying to depoliticize fish and wildlife issues, said Kevin Delaney, a former director of the Division of Sport Fish, Alaska is going the opposite direction in putting in charge someone who has been immersed for years in politics. Biologists both in and outside the department often use the word "demoralizing" to describe this trend.

Schoen is a former research biologist who conducted pioneering studies on Sitka black-tail deer and old-growth forest in Southeast Alaska. He later helped devise a plan for maximizing timber harvests in the Tongass National Forest while preserving maximum wildlife habitat, a plan the state tried unsuccessfully to sell to the U.S. Forest Service. Schoen went on from there to conduct grizzly bear research for the agency before finally leaving to become the chief scientist for Audubon Alaska. He continues to work there part time, and he carries the baggage of someone working for an environmental organization.

Outgoing Deputy Commissioner of Fish and Game Pat Valkenberg might be considered Schoen's ideological opposite in the world of wildlife management. Valkenberg is an advocate of what the state calls "intensive management." He championed the idea of manipulating predator numbers by killing wolves and bears to maximize the number of prey, primarily moose and caribou, in Alaska. He is a guy a lot of environmentalists detest. But on the subject of where Fish and Game has gone over the last 20 years and where it is headed, Valkenberg echoes Schoen.

"Our research program is a shadow of its former self," he said. Over the years, job slots once filled by wildlife researchers have been shifted to employ publications specialists, computer programmers, geographic information system (GIS) specialists and others, Valkenberg added, in the process draining the agency of what it needs most: better information with which to fine-tune management of fish and wildlife resources and to utilize as the federal government seems to edge toward a full-scale takeover of fish and wildlife management in the 49th state.

"The biggest problem with appointing someone like Cora is credibility," said Valkenberg, who became a deputy commissioner after Parnell took over the governor's office from Sarah Palin. "There is no earned credibility there."

Given time and hard work, many agree, Campbell might gain that credibility, but they question whether there is time for this in an agency that has been losing top professional staff and expertise to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and companion federal agencies for years now. The exodus runs through all divisions.

Susitna Valley area sport fisheries biologist Dave Rutz, a 2005 winner of Fish & Game's "Meritorious Service Award," recently left what he considered his "dream job" to go to work for the feds. The benefits that went with the federal job were much better, and the pay at the entry level in federal government started out higher than where Rutz had topped out on the Fish and Game pay scale. In his new job, Rutz oversees federal funds shared with the state's sport fish program, monies that come from fishing gear and equipment taxes, and by law can be used only for sport fish research and management.

That could prove problematic for Gov. Sean Parnell's plan to reintegrate the state's Division of Sport Fisheries into the larger, more politically-powerful Commercial Fisheries Division. In the past, commercial fisheries management has been accused of stealing federal sport fisheries funds and funneling them into commercial programs. Rutz isn't likely to go along with anything like that, given that his departure from Alaska's Department of Fish & Game also stemmed in part from exasperation with the department's management.

Rutz confessed he was tired of the "phony Kumbaya" that he saw becoming something of a norm within Fish and Game. That is the stuff of politics, not science. Science is supposed to be contentious. It thrives on discussion and debate. Not so politics or at least not so politics in these days. Discussion is now often considered something that might provide ammunition to political enemies, and thus it is to be stifled -- public policy be damned.

"I know for a fact that officials in the division of Wildlife Conservation have been threatened" to shut up, Schoen said. Unfortunately, Valkenberg added, that's not something new. "We had problems with other administrations in the past. Information was suppressed. Biologists were told not to talk to people. There've been attempts to control what biologists can say."

Sound science or state 'science policy'?

Parnell is by no means the first governor to inject politics into the agency. There is a trend here that has been underway for a long time.

Valkenberg worked for years as a wildlife biologist in the Fairbanks office of Fish and Game, and he traces the politicization of the agency back at least to the administration of two-term Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles, first elected in 1994. It might go back even farther, but most everyone does agree that in the beginning it was different. The first commissioner of Fish and Game, Clarence Louis "Andy" Anderson, a boy from Skagway, came to the agency in 1959 from the federal Bureau of Fisheries with a master's degree from the University of Washington, where he had been a guest lecturer on fisheries.

He headed a department that took over from the federal government salmon fisheries devastated by over-fishing and climatic issues, and he championed a drive to do the basic research necessary to try to figure out how to restore those salmon runs. The commissioners who followed him for years generally followed this lead. Not all of them were great administrators, but they usually came with stellar professional pedigrees.

Jim Brooks had done pioneering research on whales and seals in Alaska before he was recruited for the commissioner's job while pursuing a doctorate at the highly respected University of British Columbia in the early 1970s. Ron Skoog, who followed Brooks in 1977, had written his doctoral thesis on the caribou herds of Alaska; it was considered the definitive paper on the subject at the time. Don Collinsworth, the pick to replace Skoog in 1983, was controversial because he held an advanced degree in resource economics, not biology, but he had been immersed for years in the agency culture as a deputy commissioner.

Carl Rosier, who followed Collinsworth once Alaska had achieved statehood, was an old-school fisheries biologist who had been bloodied in the old battles between Fish and Game, which insisted on increasing the number of spawning salmon in Alaska rivers and streams, and commercial fishermen, who thought the biologists were costing them money in pursuit of some crazy theory about maximizing salmon returns.

The scientists turned out to be right, however. Weak salmon runs that had led to a meager catch of 25 million salmon in the year of statehood were slowly but steadily rebuilt. By 1980, the Alaska salmon catch had climbed to 110 million fish, a harvest that hadn't been seen since the 1930s. There have been ups and downs since, but conservative, scientific management has managed to keep annual returns generally high. The statewide catch this year was 164 million -- almost exactly the 10-year average for the decade -- and almost seven times the catch at statehood.

A bounty of salmon, however, only served to further politicize Fish and Game. Commercial fishermen wanted every dollar-generating salmon they could get in their nets, and anglers began to increasingly demand their "fair share" as the state population grew and tourism boomed into its own Alaska industry. Fish and Game increasingly got pulled away from science into politics. Knowles first pick as Fish and Game commissioner was Frank Rue, a self-confessed "preppie" with a masters in landscape architecture/planning from University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Rue had, however, spent a considerable apprenticeship in Alaska state government. He started with the Department of Natural Resources, and later moved on to become director of the Habitat Division at Fish and Game for nearly a decade.

Rue, who still makes his home in Juneau, remembers a rocky transition into the habitat director's job when he first joined Fish and Game. "It was hard," he said. "You had to earn their respect." Rue did, and was well-immersed in the agency culture, like Collinsworth, by the time the Joint Boards picked him to be one of the commissioner candidates suggested to then-Gov. Tony Knowles in 1995, knowing beforehand that Rue was the governor's preferred choice.

Rue, who was steeped in the culture of the old Fish and Game, said he tried to avoid politics as best he could and stick to the idea that "you just present the science as best you can" and let the Boards walk through the minefield that is resource allocation in Alaska.

Myth management in the Last Frontier

Fish and wildlife are woven deeply into the social and economic fabric of the state. Commercial fishing, sport fishing and tourists businesses are all dependent to varying degrees on fish and wildlife resources. Commercial fishermen can never catch enough. Anglers always want more. So do hunters, an embattled and often touchy American minority. Meanwhile, wildlife viewers and wildlife photographers want hunting restricted to benefit their passions, and animal rights advocates want all hunting and fishing stopped. Less strident environmentalists simply oppose the manipulation of predator numbers to benefit prey, which is a nice way of saying don't kill charismatic wolves and bears. Rural Alaskans, dealing with the realities of life among the long-fanged bears and wolves, want them all killed. Finally, there are low-income subsistence hunters and fishermen, or personal-use salmon dipnetters, who think they should have a greater opportunity to harvest wild resources than moneyed hunting guides or wealthy commercial fishermen, particularly those from the Lower 48.

All these competing interests outside of the agency only compound the inevitable in-fighting of any big bureaucracy. Under Rue's reign, the agency could already be seen to be in some ways sliding away from science toward those quagmires. Some in the sport fisheries division were frustrated that angling interests were getting crushed by a powerful commercial fishing lobby, and they had a sympathetic supporter in the governor, who liked to sport fish. There was in-fighting over predator management, too.

Many biologists in the department had been schooled in the idea that natural predation served to help create some sort of "balance of nature," but new research in the state was questioning that orthodoxy, and some of the biologists doing that research were beginning to speak out. The issue would become increasingly political, and by the time the state administrations cycled through Gov. Frank Murkowski, Palin and now Parnell, the wolf-kill faction would have swung the pendulum on predator control to the opposite side of the box. And as politics became more and more part of the game, they would then try to silence those questioning the new position.

Were these issues not enough, on top of the heap sat the thorny issue of subsistence, a political football nearly all the political players wanted stuffed away, out of sight, in a dark corner. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 had given the federal government the authority to provide rural residents a priority for that ill-defined activity called subsistence on federal lands. The state Supreme Court said a rural preference violated the Alaska Constitution. There were failed efforts to amend the state Constitution to agree with ANILCA. There were unsuccessful attempts to overturn the federal priority in the courts.

Eventually, state and federal officials ended up in a dual management wrestling match that continues to this day. "We live in a much more complicated world now," Valkenberg said. "It's easy to monkey-wrench things, and then when you start to inject personalities ..." Well, then it's easy to start thinking the politics more important than the science, easy to give into the idea the social and political concerns ought to trump biological ones.

"We've been moving this way for a long time," said Delaney, who left Fish and Game long ago to become a stock broker and make money. "Maybe it is an inevitable evolution."

Delaney was professionally trained as a fisheries biologist, and in the past two years he has been drawn back into that field to do some consulting work for the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, one of several advocacy groups dueling over Cook Inlet salmon. Having come up through the ranks of a science-based Fish and Game, he said, it is a little strange to go away and come back to see how different the things are now.

"There's been a real effort to depoliticize Fish and Game agencies elsewhere," he said. Alaska was once the model for that, but not so anymore. He doesn't like what he sees. "If you get into partisan politics," Delaney warned, "everything changes. You don't get good science that way."

He and others worry about the politics eventually forcing deterioration in the quality of the science on which politics, or at least good politics, itself depends. Ken Whitten, a former wildlife biologist for Fish and Game in Fairbanks and a neighbor of Valkenberg's there, thinks it's already happening. He points to the appointment of old Palin family friend Corey Rossi as the director of the Division of Wildlife, a job Rossi still holds, despite a very thin scientific pedigree. Rossi has championed costly, state-backed hunt for predators that has in some cases show little success while smearing the image of Alaskans as good stewards of wild resources.

Valkenberg, who supported Rossi's appointment, said the director's practical experience working as a wildlife specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture makes up for his lack of college degree. But even Valkenberg admits Fish and Game is on a slippery slope leading away the agency's founding principles, principles important enough that a mandate for that science-based "sustained yield" management of fish and wildlife "for the maximum benefit of the people" was written into the state Constitution.

The state's founders wanted to keep politics out of Fish and Game as much as possible. It's clearly crept back in. Some point to Rossi's appointment as wildlife director in early 2010 as a move directed by Parnell to solidify his political support in Interior Alaska prior to this year's election. After Rossi was named director, more than 40 retired and former state wildlife biologists, some of them now among the top wildlife researchers in their fields, lobbied to have someone with better credentials appointed to the post, but they got nowhere.

"We were totally brushed off by (then Commissioner) Denby Lloyd and the governor," Whitten said. "They don't want to listen to professionals. It's kind of frightening. It's a little scary."

He, like many others, wonders where, when and how this will all end. Many of the best scientists who used to work for Fish and Game have left, Whitten said. Those who could afford to retire did so. Many others went to work for the feds. The new hires increasingly seem to view the agency as a place to gather some skills before moving on. Campbell has already identified this as one of the big problems the agency now faces. She is already looking at new ways to encourage people to stay, along with trying to figure how to retain institutional knowledge as veteran employees continue to depart.

Departing Commissioner Lloyd pointed out low pay as a huge problem plaguing the agency, but no one really seemed to listen. Why should they?

So far, none of the problems at Fish and Game seem to have had a major effect on the situation on the ground. Salmon runs remain generally healthy. Wildlife populations are largely intact, although there are localized problems with over-harvest around some villages. Dipnetters can generally get as many salmon as they want. There are still fish to be caught with rod and reel, and some opportunities for average Alaskans to hunt, although subsistence demands are increasingly gobbling up the small, annual surplus of harvestable, big game animals in the state.

Clearly the system hasn't collapsed after years of political tinkering and gamesmanship.

Rue admits to reservations about Campbell's appointment to the commissioner's post. "You ought to have someone there who has done the time in Fish and Game," he said. But, he added, Campbell might turn out to be a perfectly good commissioner. "Who knows," he said. I'm not going to pass judgment until I see what happens." Former commissioner McKie Campbell, now an aide to Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Washington, D.C., says much the same.

Politics have been an integral part of Fish and Game for a while now, he noted; a political appointee coming from outside the agency might not be the best choice, but Campbell could turn out to be a good fit.

Fish and Game's professional staff of today appears at least accept this if not to agree. Old hands believe that an attempt to appoint someone like Campbell 20 years ago would have caused uproar, but the staff today remains quiet. It is hard to tell what the majority think. Some are clearly demoralized.

Others appear to accept politics as part of the new agency order. A few, as Schoen noted, have been told to keep their mouths shut on just about anything. More than one specifically said that if their names were used in a story about the department they would probably be out of work.

As for the interests outside the department that could play a role in influencing the selection of a commissioner, they are predictably enthused or worried. The United Fishermen of Alaska, the state's largest commercial fishing organization, has heartily endorsed Campbell. Sport fishing, hunting and subsistence groups have said little while trying to judge exactly how things will swirl out in the political winds.

Parnell has tried to buttress his former fisheries aide in her new position by putting political/scientific operatives around her. Kelly Hepler, a one-time sport fish director and former Delaney crony, has been named to a new post as "assistant director" as part of a "Campbell team" that includes Craig Fleener, a former director of Natural Resources for the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments, as a deputy commissioner.

Hepler will try to keep the sport fishing interests happy. Fleener will try to keep the subsistence interests happy. Rossi will go on leading predator kills to keep the now-powerful "intensive management" lobby happy. The science will be increasingly done by federal biologists who were once state biologists. And everything will hopefully be fine just so long as it is fine.

Campbell doesn't expect the job to be easy, but she believes she can do it. She understands her resume is thin, but notes everyone starts somewhere. She argues she gave up the role as a commercial fisheries advocate when she went into public service.

"I transitioned into a statewide role," she said. "I'm open-minded. I was brought up in the fishing industry. I treat people fairly. I think the important thing is attitude."

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)

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