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Alaska needs Fish and Game chief to heed science over politics, ideology

Dear Governor Walker:

You are at least our fourth governor to promise management of Alaska's fish, wildlife and habitat resources based on the best available science.

The wisdom of that should be as obvious as assuring that if our kids need medical operations, key decisions will be made by top flight physicians, not by insurance adjusters. It's like assuring that when we fly in a plane, its maintenance and piloting will done by expert mechanics and pilots, not PR staff.

Unfortunately, each of your recent predecessors has judged "best" science by whatever gave the most convincing rationalization for decisions based on political expediency, rather than by how well the "science" conformed to the laws of nature. The laws followed by salmon, halibut, moose, caribou and wolves, for example, are those laid down by God, not those laid down by kings, emperors, presidents or governors. No edict has ever stopped the tides from rising and falling. No edit which ignores ecological realities has ever enhanced the benefits we derive from fish, wildlife and habitat.

On the contrary, managing natural resources through political expediency just guarantees their continued degradation, as evidenced by crashing fish stocks and dwindling wildlife populations. Decisions made to benefit special interests in the short run have all too often betrayed the public trust and constitutional mandate for long-term sustainability.

For example, failure to assure scientific soundness of predator-control programs, and to communicate effectively about these to the public, has transformed a fundamentally simple management tactic into a political nightmare, including a tourism boycott that continues to sucker-punch our economy.

Regrounding natural resource management on valid science cannot be accomplished simply by hiring more researchers or entry-level managers with better scientific training, or even by allowing them to make more input to upper management. Advice works only if it is listened to, understood, and utilized -- i.e., only if top administrators have the training and experience to see "the big picture" from a system perspective, determine which information is critical for each decision, support staff in gathering this information, and then apply the information to making decisions and implementing them even in the face of political opposition. Last, but not least, this information has to be communicated to the public objectively -- a far cry from hammering us with propaganda touting comic-book biology as has been happening through the past three administrations.

With all due respect to past Fish and Game commissioners, they simply haven't had the breadth of experience and the depth of training necessary to meet this challenge -- a challenge which can only grow tougher as more and more people compete for fewer and fewer resources, and as scientific information becomes ever more difficult to comprehend.

We hope, therefore, that you will select a commissioner who is not only politically astute and broadly experienced in all aspects of fish, wildlife and habitat management, but one who is a professional scientist who can communicate effectively with people at all levels of expertise, from Ph.D. researchers and attorneys to the average guy and gal -- a commissioner who can make even the most complex issues easily understood by politicians, fellow bureaucrats, media and the general public.

Stephen F. Stringham is president of WildWatch Consulting, an ecological consulting firm in Soldotna. He specializes in predator behavior and ecology, and has done research in Alaska, other states, Canada and Europe to enhance wildlife management. He is the author of several books on bears, bear safety and wildlife viewing.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com

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