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Who pays for Alaska wildlife, and does it really matter to Sen. Pete Kelly?

  • Author: Rick Sinnott
  • Updated: June 25, 2016
  • Published April 25, 2016

When the founders of the United States penned the line, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal," they didn't mean all men. And they really didn't mean women. Fortunately, amendments to the U.S. Constitution rectified that historical shortcoming.

Alaska Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, takes issue with our Declaration of Independence and Constitution on this point. He seems to believe that they meant, "All men who pay hunting license fees are created equal."

The governor's nominee, Guy Trimmingham, apparently indicated a willingness to weigh the opinions of Alaskans who don't hunt if appointed to the board. Although Trimmingham hunts and guided hunters for 20 or 25 years, he acknowledged he has taken photos of wildlife and may have "used the word 'photograph' somewhere."

That was way over the line for Kelly. "It's not about balance," he proclaimed. "They always want balance but they don't pay fees."

Presumably, Kelly was talking about hunting license and tag fees. And by "they" Kelly means most Alaskans, who don't hunt.

Wildlife belongs to everyone

Less than 15 percent of Alaskans purchase hunting licenses annually. Most people who consider themselves hunters can be included if you consider a longer timeframe. Five years is often used as a benchmark. Using that broader definition, approximately 25 percent of Alaskans hunt. One in four.

Some hunting advocates would like to believe that most Alaskans eat wild game, even if they don't hunt. Although the number is unquantified, obviously many Alaskans who don't hunt eat game provided by a family member or acquaintance. But even so, those folks aren't paying hunting license and tag fees. So, according to Kelly's tortured logic, they shouldn't be represented on the Game Board either. Furthermore, because many hunters don't hunt every year, they shouldn't have a say in wildlife management during the years they don't pay the fees.

Yep. Only 15 percent of Alaskans purchase hunting licenses and tags each year, and according to Sen. Kelly's discriminatory rule of thumb only those Alaskans deserve to be represented on the Game Board.

Although most Alaskans don't hunt, most of us enjoy interacting with wildlife in a variety of ways. People watch birds at their feeders, photograph moose and bears, visit national parks and wildlife refuges, and simply appreciate the idea that Alaska is a wild state. Many hunters enjoy watching and photographing wildlife and aren't as monomaniacal about allowing a nonhunter on the Game Board as Sen. Kelly.

Alaska defines all wildlife as "game" even though most species can't be hunted. And wildlife belongs to everyone.

Kelly wants you to believe that Alaskans who don't hunt, and the millions of nonhunters who visit Alaska every year don't pay for wildlife management. If that were so, Kelly might have a point. But he's wrong.

Everyone pays for wildlife

Every American pays for wildlife management. The most comprehensive breakdown of funding sources I've seen estimates that nationally only about 6 percent of funding for wildlife conservation comes from hunters. The nonhunting public contributes much more to operate federal agencies -- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, National Park Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, and Bureau of Land Management -- that protect and maintain wildlife habitat. Nonhunters contribute much more to conservation organizations that protect wildlife habitat for hunting and other purposes.

Nonhunters almost certainly contribute more than hunters to Pittman-Robertson funds, the traditional federal funding source for state wildlife agencies, including Alaska's. This is because most Pittman-Robertson funds come from excise taxes on the sale of handguns and ammunition not typically used for hunting.

Nationally, hunters, who make up only 4 or 5 percent of the population, contribute only about 6 percent of the funding for wildlife management. According to the Alaska Division of Wildlife Management, about 22 percent of its funding comes from the sale of licenses and tags. Most of the division's funding comes from the federal Pittman-Robertson program and the state's general fund.

According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the net economic value of wildlife viewing to the state is five times higher than hunting.

The persistent myth that only hunters pay for wildlife management is a smokescreen created by some hunters to control a public resource that belongs to every American.

Taxation without representation

Kelly isn't averse to the idea of taxation without representation. Isn't that what got King George III in trouble back in 1776? But let's set the U.S. Constitution aside for a minute. What does our Alaska Constitution have to say about wildlife? Article VIII requires that, "Wherever occurring in their natural state, fish, wildlife, and waters are reserved to the people for common use." I don't think that means "the people who pay the hunting license fees."

The vast majority of Alaskans has never been adequately represented on the Game Board. Only one or two of approximately 80 Alaskans appointed to the board since 1975 haven't been hunters.

Sen. Kelly doesn't seem to understand any of this. Or maybe he just doesn't care about fair representation. He can ignore everything I've said so far. And he probably will. But his self-righteous gripe that "they always want balance" blows his whole argument out of the water.

"Balance" would mean that no more than one of the seven board members (14 percent) would be a hunter or hunting guide. But Kelly seems terrified to approve a single nominee, even a hunter and longtime guide, who is willing to consider other wildlife users.

Kelly's comments show he's unwilling to allow Alaska residents fair representation on the Game Board. He needs to stop acting like an 18th-century British monarch.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist.

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

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