In defense of Alaska's acting wildlife chief

OPINION: Alaska has a new acting director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation and a good one this time. And yet it appears the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has grown so dysfunctional that even this is hard for some to recognize. Acting director Doug Vincent-Lang finds himself under attack because the old director is accused of being a poacher, because the state has been involved in Endangered Species Act issues, because Commissioner Cora Campbell can't spell so well, and because, oh yes, Vincent-Lang's credentials -- while excellent -- are not wildlife-centric.

He studied marine ecosystems where the relationships of predator and prey are so complex as to make terrestrial ecosystems look like child's play. But the premise appears to be that one must have a background in pure wildlife management to be a successful director of the Division of Wildlife.

That premise is sadly wrong in terms of management, science and most importantly the ever-present politics of natural resource management. And it is dead wrong when it comes to Vincent-Lang.

Alaska is lucky to have a cabinet level Fish and Game Department with a charge spelled out in the state Constitution. This has removed some of the politics from fish and game management in this state, but far from all. The constitutional marching orders, simply stated, call for managing fish and wildlife for sustained yield and maximum benefit. That sounds easy and is anything but. Think about the delicate and complex balancing act this mandate creates. One man's maximum benefit is a photograph of a moose; another woman's maximum benefit is the roast from a dead moose on the dinner table.

These are the sorts of issues Fish and Game deals with at a senior management level. Like it or not, when you take an appointment as commissioner, special assistant or division director at the Department of Fish and Game you are going to work at the intellectual intersection where the "rubber" of science and management meets the "road" of the larger, more complex, political and social world. Purists, be they retired wildlife biologists or others, can bemoan this fact if they like, but to ignore it is neither realistic nor helpful.

A study of the characteristics of successful leaders of state fish and wildlife management was conducted in the 1990s by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It did not find a degree in wildlife science the most important ingredient of success. What the study found to be important were a background in the science of fish and wildlife management in general, an ability to communicate effectively and listen carefully, the capability to foster team building, the capacity to help create and communicate a vision of success, and an understanding of the political landscape that must be negotiated. Few individuals were found to possess all or most of these important qualifications.

Many lack too many of them. Some of the best scientists in the world make crappy managers and leaders. They're better with fish, or wildlife, than they are with people and budgets. And the top jobs at Fish and Game are all about people and budgets.

All divisions within the Alaska Department of Fish and Game operate under the same constitutional mandate with their duties spelled out in Title 16 of the state statutes. All answer to the same committees of the Alaska Legislature. The budgeting process and administrative responsibilities for all the divisions are the same. Funding sources are the same. The Board of Fisheries and the Board of Game derive their powers from very similar state statutes and function in much the same way.

Wildlife science does not subscribe to some strange and different scientific method than fisheries science. Both peer review and publication processes are the same. There is, in fact, more similar about these sciences than different.

In an ideal situation, of course, the director of a division within the Department of Fish and Game would have all of the characteristics listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, plus experience with the duties of the division and a history therein. But people like that are rare, and where you get your science seems to matter little in running a division. The management disasters of which I'm aware in Alaska and around the country have not come from having a fish versus a wildlife background.

Good management comes from good managers, and good science comes from good scientists. It's that simple and that complicated. So what about Vincent-Lang's science? Well, he came to Alaska in 1978 with a bachelor's degree in population dynamics from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay in 1978. He earned a master's in Oceanography at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1980. Most Alaskans might not know this, but the university based in the Interior has one of the world's better marine science programs.

I personally met Vincent-Lang in 1980 when he came to work at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. For the next two years, we labored together on the Susitna Hydro Feasibility Study. Vincent-Lang's assignment at the time was to develop a methodology for evaluation of aquatic habitats in an Arctic setting and then utilize those techniques to study and protect resources. His resume is a public document so I won't dwell on it here other than to note he engaged a few very difficult assignments and produced some outstanding accomplishments in the years that followed.

After completing research with the Susitna project, he was assigned to lead stock assessment studies for lingcod and salmon sharks -- big predators, like wolves and bears. Fisheries were starting to focus on the harvest of these species despite the fact little was known about their life histories or productivity. That was a recipe for ecological disaster. Lingcod, in particular, could easily have been fished out in this state. They weren't. The conservative regulations that came to govern the fisheries for that species was a direct result of Vincent-Lang's research.

His success in the research and management of marine species led to another difficult yet critical assignment. If you regularly read Alaska Dispatch, you are well aware of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council and the issues for which the Council is responsible. Vincent-Lang was the state's first sport fish representative on the Council's technical panel. In that capacity, he delivered the message that the sport fishery must be a more active participant in the halibut fishery; that harvest, effort and economic data must be collected and presented if the fishery was to be managed properly. The sport fish charter logbook program was a direct result of his effort to ensure that the state's sport fishery could document that it was a viable, money-making industry deserving a legitimate allocation of halibut.

In the 1990s, the unit of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that provides about a third of the funding for state's the Wildlife and Sport Fish Divisions asked Vincent-Lang to work with them for a year on what they then called their "Management Effectiveness Team." The group was tasked with evaluating fish and wildlife agencies across North America and identifying strategies that separated the most effective from the rest. A guy who spent his time collecting this sort of knowledge ought to be the kind of guy you want running one of the major divisions in Fish and Game.

Finally let's consider what it takes to represent Alaska's interests in the national debate about endangered species. Is there anyone out there who really thinks this is not an extremely challenging task? A master's degree in wildlife may take two years, a Ph.D. a couple more. Vincent-Lang has been the state's lead participant in the endangered species arena since 2007. He has repeatedly testified before the Congress of the United States and represented Alaska's interests in interviews broadcast on national network new programs. He has spent more time studying up on polar bears and beluga whales than any reasonable person would wish to do.

Maybe when it comes time to make the permanent appointment of a new director for the Division of Wildlife Conservation an applicant will emerge from within the division who has what it takes, or one of the well-qualified people who have left the division in recent years will say they want to return to run the show. But for now everyone -- and most especially those in the Division -- should thank Vincent-Lang for stepping up and once again, as he has so many times in his career, taking on a very tough job for the department.

If there is anything of which Vincent-Lang is guilty, it is believing that however messed up Fish and Game might be the agency can always be made better. He has, over the years, proven himself among the agency's most faithful servants. And now, suddenly, when Fish and Game most needs such people, this is being treated like a crime?

Kevin Delaney was the director of the Division of Sport Fisheries from 1995 to 2000. He left to become an investment advisor with UBS Wealth Management. He now splits his time between the Southwest, where he spends a lot of time hunting and riding horses, and Alaska, where he remains a consultant on fishery issues and maintains a home in Talkeetna so he can enjoy the silver-salmon fishing.

Kevin Delaney

Kevin Delaney is a former director of the Division of Sport Fish in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He is a fisheries consultant with Kenai River Sportfishing Association.