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Another reason it's time for a change at the top: Alaska's wildlife and habitat

  • Author: Bill Sherwonit
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published October 29, 2014

Like many Alaskans who are eligible to vote, I've been closely following this year's gubernatorial campaign (I'd like to think most Alaskans, but I'm not sure that's true). And like a substantial percentage of residents, I've been encouraged by the so-called "Unity Ticket" of Bill Walker and Byron Mallott that is challenging the incumbent and his running mate. Though the Walker-Mallott team is clearly a compromise, it also seems clear that this pair of candidates more closely reflects the values, desires, and needs of the majority of Alaskans, especially those who aren't connected to either the oil and gas industry or to corporate and political power.

For a host of reasons, most of them addressed on these pages and elsewhere, it's time for a regime change. Actually, change is long overdue.

Gov. Sean Parnell has been -- and figures to be, if re-elected -- bad for Alaska in so many ways. These include his stubborn and harmful stance on Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act; his mantra that "Alaska is open for business," with no apparent concern for possible harmful consequences of his all-embracing welcome of corporations and development; his close ties to -- and advocacy for -- the oil and gas industry at the expense of Alaska residents (not to mention his administration's pro-mining inclinations, even where such mines threaten salmon and/or people's livelihoods and community well-being, for instance, Pebble Mine and coal mining in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough); his unwillingness to properly fund and be a true advocate for education; his fiscal irresponsibility; his obstinate and expensive fights with the federal government, even when the state has no chance of winning (talk about nuisance lawsuits); and the hypocrisy of his "Choose Respect" slogan, which sounds great, but as evidenced by many of his actions (or inactions) hasn't translated into protecting Alaska's most vulnerable citizens, whether in remote communities or those enlisted in (or recruited by) the Alaska National Guard. The latter is an unfolding tragedy of awful proportions and should, in and of itself, be enough to boot Parnell out of office.

But there's another reason Parnell needs to go: the threats that he and his appointees present to Alaska's wildlife and their habitat. I've closely followed Alaska's wildlife management and politics since the mid-1980s, and I've never witnessed such regressive management as that practiced under the Parnell administration.

It's fair to say that state management of wildlife and critically important habitat is the worst it's been since statehood. This is demonstrated in part by state-run predator-control programs, which are more extreme than they've ever been.

Only in recent years have the Board of Game and Alaska Department of Fish and Game chosen to use such methods as the gassing of wolf pups in their dens, the snaring of both black bears and grizzlies, the baiting of grizzlies, the shooting of bears from helicopters, and the aerial gunning of wolves in places where it's clear that changing habitat is primarily responsible for ungulate declines, not predation.

It wasn't so long ago that the killing of female bears with cubs was considered both unethical and unwise. But under Parnell, the game board has decided that in some parts of the state, any bear can be killed by us humans, including sows with cubs and the cubs themselves.

In short, the state's war on wolves and now bears (what else can you call it?) has grown ever more extreme with Parnell in charge, primarily to appease urban and suburban "sport" and trophy hunters. It's a travesty that so far seems to have gone largely unnoticed, or ignored, by the majority of Alaskans.

Beyond that, there's plenty of evidence that the state's wildlife-management system is both broken and increasingly corrupt under Parnell's watch (though one might legitimately ask if he's been watching or gives a damn). This has been shown by lamentable appointments to the game board (a couple of which legislators rejected, no small thing given the Legislature's leanings), an unbalanced body stacked with hunting and trapping proponents who show a purely consumptive bias; and, most recently, his administration's efforts to gut the management plans—and habitat protections—of Alaska's "special areas," which include sanctuaries, refuges, and critical habitat.

With Parnell's tacit approval, high-ranking officials in Fish and Game have taken -- and continue to take -- actions that jeopardize the long-standing protections at Round Island and McNeil River (world-famous walrus and brown bear sanctuaries, respectively) and 30 other sites managed by the state, including such popular places as the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, which includes Potter Marsh, Creamer's Field in Fairbanks, Palmer Hay Flats, and critical habitat areas at Kachemak Bay, Clam Gulch, the Chilkat River and Anchor River/Fritz Creek. As reported by the Alaska Public Radio Network and Alaska Dispatch News, the primary tactic is to redo, that is, water down, the management plans that govern permissible activities within a majority of these special areas by diminishing and/or eliminating already existing protections.

Even worse, but not surprisingly, the department is doing so behind closed doors, without any public input.

Another disconcerting aspect of this closed-to-the-public effort is the speed with which its being done. It usually takes many months, and sometimes years, for a single management plan to be completed or updated, with substantial input from both the public and other agencies. By contrast, Director Randy Bates has ordered his state Habitat Division staff to rework an initial batch of eight special area plans in less than a year (to be completed by December) -- without any feedback from the public or any other government agencies.

What the Parnell administration is doing to Alaska's wildlife and wildlife habitat is wrong in so many ways. But that should come as no surprise to anyone who's been paying attention to his actions in other arenas. Overwhelming evidence suggests that he's more concerned with appeasing narrow interest groups and corporations, rather than acting for the greater good of Alaskans, human or otherwise. It's way past time for Alaskans to tell him good riddance.

Bill Sherwonit has written about Alaska's wildlife and their management for nearly three decades and is the author of more than a dozen books about Alaska; his newest is "Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska's Wildlife."

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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