Fish & Wildlife Service wise to oppose Alaska's 'war on wolves' for refuges

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently proposed a new rule restricting certain controversial predator control measures on federal wildlife refuges, measures promoted by state wildlife managers. Critics termed this yet another example of federal overreach. Federal public hearings are now underway across Alaska to gather public input prior to adopting the final rule.

I moved to Alaska in 1974, 20 years before the Intensive Management Law passed the state Legislature. Before the law passed I observed and participated in the regulation-making process that guided wildlife management in this state.

At that time, the Board of Game operated within the statutes, guided by proven principles of conservation and sustainability, sound science, fair chase and traditional hunting ethics. After widespread, legal aerial shooting of wolves by private pilots in the 1950s and 1960s, the Board outlawed this controversial practice and later prohibited land-and-shoot wolf hunting. The bounty on wolves was repealed. Same-day airborne hunting of big game species including bears was prohibited. Wolf hunting and trapping seasons were closed when pups were not fully grown and pelts were not prime. Of course, gassing wolf pups in dens was illegal. Female bears with cubs and cubs themselves were protected, and grizzlies were not trapped, snared or baited. Hunters, including bear hunters, could not be legally transported with helicopters. And black bears were not considered furbearers and bear parts could not be sold.

All of these carefully crafted protective measures were designed to ensure that wolves and bears remained as viable components of Alaska's environment and would provide sustained yields for hunters and trappers in perpetuity. And so I and others were dismayed when the Board embarked on a new mission starting in 2003 to aggressively apply increasingly controversial intensive management practices over much of the state.

During the past 12 years, in virtually every game management unit, there has been an incremental effort to lengthen wolf hunting and trapping seasons and increase bag limits, even opening seasons at times when pups were helpless and pelts were not prime. A wolf bounty was proposed. More than 100 private pilots were licensed to shoot wolves from the air. Who would have thought that young wolf pups would ever be gassed in dens? Or bears would ever be snared or trapped and their body parts sold? Or same-day airborne hunting would be allowed? By any standard, these measures would be considered extreme, yet all were approved and implemented except for the bounty.

Alaska's intensive management program has been called a "war on wolves" and labeled "abundant mismanagement" (rather than "managing for abundance"). And state efforts to apply extreme predator reduction measures to national wildlife refuge lands might well be called "state overreach."

Clearly, directives in the federal statutes, regulations and policies governing wildlife refuge management stand in sharp contrast to the theory and practice of the state's intensive management programs. Nothing in Alaska's intensive management law mandates managing for natural diversity, biological integrity or environmental health, yet these directives in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act guide management of the federal refuges. The basic conflict created by the state would have been avoided at the outset had the state recognized that when applying intensive management, these directives required a different approach on federal lands.


It is important to note that between passage of the Intensive Management Law in 1994 and 2003, the state applied the law broadly without adopting the extreme wolf and bear reduction methods implemented in recent years. And certain intensive management measures could still occur on the refuges today absent these controversial methods.

I believe most Alaskans support wildlife management on federal lands based on proven conservation principles, sound science and traditional ethical standards. But at the same time they oppose highly controversial, extreme measures to reduce or eliminate wolves and bears over vast areas.

So I commend the Fish and Wildlife Service for following the law, for managing the refuges as Congress intended, and for excluding extreme measures that are in direct conflict with preserving biological integrity, natural diversity and environmental health. To do anything less would violate public trust in the agency responsible for managing the national wildlife refuges -- special places that belong to all of us.

Vic Van Ballenberghe is a wildlife biologist who lives in Anchorage. He is a former member of the Alaska Board of Game.

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. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Vic Van Ballenberghe

Vic Van Ballenberghe is a moose and wolf biologist who was appointed to the Board of Game three different times by two governors.