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Alaska law does not justify game regulators abandoning decades-old, ethics-based statutes

Doug Vincent-Lang's Sept. 1 response to Joel Hard's Sept. 9 commentary challenging state predator control methods on National Park Service lands illustrates several important issues in Alaska's recent approach to severely reducing predators over a broad area of the state.

Vincent-Lang repeatedly states that Hard and other NPS employees used their own ethical judgments when crafting federal regulations challenging the state's approach. But Hard's statement that he did not grow up where shooting wolves at dens, using lights to take bears at dens, and grizzly bear baiting were legal was not a reflection of his own ethics but rather an accurate observation that these practices were long illegal under state regulations until they were recently employed to reduce predator populations.

Vincent-Lang stated that when the regulations in question were approved by the Alaska Board of Game, "The professionals at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game did not feel it was our role to judge the ethics of these practices." Nor did the game board provide ethical guidance. I contend that their failure to act was a breach of their responsibility with far-reaching consequences.

When I served on the board at various times between 1985 and 2002, Fish and Game and the board were very much concerned with ethical standards, and previous boards since statehood clearly were too. That is why shooting wolves from airplanes by private pilots, same-day airborne shooting of all big game species, herding of animals with motor vehicles, the use of poison, transporting hunters with helicopters, trapping bears, gassing wolf pups at dens and a host of other practices were made illegal prior to 2002. But since 2002, in its zeal to accomplish intensive management, the board decided to abandon long-held ethical standards and adopt extreme methods to reduce bears and wolves. And Fish and Game stood idly by, claiming as Vincent-Lang does, that the only standard is one of maintaining sustained yield.

Hunters in Alaska, and the public in general, have long advocated for self-restraint and for ethical hunting standards. The whole concept of fair chase is based on the ethical belief that game animals deserve a chance to escape. If our only standard is maintaining sustained yield, why not allow shooting from helicopters under a permit system? If Fish and Game and the board are no longer interested in providing ethical guidance, who will? I strongly believe that hunters expect guidance and non-hunters demand it and state managers appropriately should provide leadership.

Although Vincent-Lang denies that the NPS challenge involves state-approved predator control regulations, in fact, the board's approach in recent years has been to excessively extend wolf and bear seasons, to increase bag limits, and to approve extreme methods of take as de facto measures to reduce predators. These measures have been applied over most of the state including federal lands. The claim that this is not predator control is disingenuous.

Intensive management advocates often claim that they are merely following directives in the intensive management law and the state Constitution to manage for high levels of sustained yield. They claim that the extreme measures adopted in recent years to reduce bear and wolf populations to very low levels and keep them there indefinitely are necessary to accomplish this. But nothing in the Constitution or the statutes directs managers to abandon ethical provisions in the regulations that were carefully crafted and remained in place for decades.

We can accomplish intensive management and still preserve ethical traditions, but we can't get there with a Fish and Game department and a game board that believe otherwise. That is why NPS acted. I applaud its leadership. But now we must also urge the state to return to ethical measures and fair-chase standards on lands outside the national parks. Failure to act will only result in further lack of public confidence and erode the process of intelligently managing wildlife for hunters and non-hunters alike.

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

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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