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Don't shoot the golden goose of wildlife viewing

One of the Alaska's most popular outdoor activities is watching wildlife -- for instance bears, wolves, moose, Dall sheep, sea lions, or songbirds. Each year, viewers pour nearly a billion dollars into our restaurants, gas stations, grocery stores, sporting goods stores, motels, air taxi services, and many other businesses, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

More than $365 million pours in as direct income for private business owners, as well as employee salaries and wages, from wildlife viewing. Another $164 million comes in through direct tax revenues -- $90 million state and local, $74 million federal. Sightseeing adds an additional chunk of money. Each time those dollars are again spent locally, the economy gets a further boost. Taking that boost into account, total value of wildlife viewing is estimated at nearly double the above figures: $979 million, $620 million, $154 million, and $126 million, respectively. Directly or indirectly, most Alaska families benefit from ecotourism.

Wise government would do everything possible to assure the health and growth of this golden goose. Yet I see no evidence that Juneau or the Board of Game makes any real effort to do so. On the contrary, when their predator control program decimates wildlife viewing opportunities, and takes the bread out of the mouths of Alaska families, their tacit response seems to be "then let them eat meat" -- as though man can live by meat alone (paraphrasing two historic quips). Anyone making the transition from the Bush to citified living learns all too quickly that utility companies don't accept roasts or sausages as barter; nor do grocery stores, or gas stations. Even sporting goods stores require payment in cash.

I enjoy eating moose, sheep and hare as much as anyone. I grew up harvesting wild meat and took great pride in living off the land, especially while deep in the Wrangell Mountains when failure meant starvation. But, like most other Alaskans, I now live in town where other considerations outweigh my preference for wild meat.

The only way I know to leave enough harvestable animals for people who truly rely on subsistence meat, or who simply enjoy killing wildlife, is for the rest of us to settle for just watching the animals. Suppose that 1,000 people had equal rights to the benefits from 100 potentially harvestable moose. If everyone wanted their benefits as meat, each person would get only one-tenth of a moose. However, if 900 of the people accepted their benefits through viewing 10 moose, the remaining 90 harvestable moose would be divided among only 100 people -- a nine-fold gain in meat per hunter. The same principle applies to all game species. And every Alaskan does have an equal right to wildlife benefits, just as we have an equal right to bear arms.

Aren't hunters just shooting themselves in the foot when they try increasing the popularity of hunting, while denigrating viewing? Far from being the enemies of hunters, viewers are potentially their strongest allies -- except when hunters become game hogs, and insist on destroying viewing opportunities. Killing viewable animals, especially right in front of viewers, is not only utterly crass, but it just alienates more people against hunting.

Wise management would acknowledge the multiple ways in which Alaskans benefit from our wildlife, and design regulations to assure that all of us receive a fair share, rather than focusing almost exclusively on putting meat on tables and trophies on walls for a favored minority. Piecemeal token gestures, such as the Board of Game's measures for "protecting" Wolverine Creek bears, have proven grossly inadequate. Worse, public proposals to obtain better protection of viewable animals have been greeted with barely-veiled hostility, contempt, and utter disregard for the negative impacts current practices inflict on Alaska families. Benefit-to-cost ratios for each regulation need to be considered for everyone, not just for those of us who buy a hunting license.

The Board of Game should do comprehensive, systematic planning with representatives of ecotourism businesses and organizations. Prime sites for viewing bears, wolves, moose, caribou and other species should be identified, and viewing designated as the highest and best use for these areas and their wildlife.

Would that protection substantially reduce hunting opportunities? No, far from it. The book "Bear Viewing in Alaska" identifies only a few dozen prime bear viewing sites in all Alaska. Prime sites for viewing wolves, moose, caribou, Dall sheep, and mountain goats, for example, are even scarcer. Protecting prime sites and their wildlife would encumber only a tiny fraction of 1 percent of the state and a comparably small fraction of our wildlife populations -- some of which are already inside or adjacent to national parks. Enhancing viewing opportunities could bring hundreds of millions in additional profits, salaries, wages and tax revenues to Alaska each year, some of which could end up in your pockets or your kids'. And the more people who view instead of hunt, the less competition there will be between remaining hunters. Win-win.

Of course, win-win solutions satisfy only those of us who care about fairness and about our neighbors, whether or not they prefer hunting over viewing, or vice versa. Unfortunately, all too many people see other folks only in terms of allies versus enemies, and define success only in terms of conquest. Even worse are people who benefit from polarizing the public to sustain the artificial conflict between hunting versus viewing. In truth, Alaska is big enough for both and many of us enjoy both.

When either hunters or viewers spout rhetoric about the sacredness of "our" way of life, and absolutely refuse to share Nature's bounty with "them," this is sometimes just narrow-minded selfishness. But all too often it's more fundamentally a way of manipulating the public for the provocateur's own gain -- either financial or political. So long as a war rages, warriors can make a good living and climb the career ladder, sometimes with their eyes on the governor's mansion.

Stephen Stringham, Ph.D., is a wildlife biologist, director of the Bear Viewing Association, a wildlife viewing guide and a former hunting guide. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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