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State bases Alaska game management on politics, not science

  • Author: Rick Sinnott
    | Opinion
  • Updated: August 24, 2016
  • Published August 18, 2016

In "Feds wage war on Alaska management of its fish and game" (Aug. 11),  Doug Vincent-Lang excoriated the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) for its decision to prohibit some forms of state-sanctioned predator control on national wildlife refuges in Alaska.

Vincent-Lang claimed that "federal bureaucrats" are "intent on destroying science-based wildlife management here in Alaska." I have news for him. The state's management of wildlife has become increasingly less science-based since 1994, when the Alaska Legislature served up the Intensive Management Act.

Reducing wolf and bear populations to artificially increase numbers of moose, caribou and deer for human harvest — literally what the act requires — is politics-based wildlife management.


The good old days

Vincent-Lang is a former director of the Alaska Division of Wildlife Conservation. I used to be an area management biologist. I was kind of like a sergeant to his colonel. So it irks me to have to keep explaining this to him. 

It's all very simple. Predator control is treated differently by state and federal wildlife agencies because the state and federal laws that govern agency actions are vastly different.

It wasn't always that way. The Alaska Constitution exhorts the state to make its natural resources "available for maximum use consistent with the public interest" and "maximum benefit of its people." Specifically, fish and wildlife "are reserved to the people for common use" and "shall be utilized, developed, and maintained on the sustained yield principle, subject to preferences among beneficial uses."

Nothing in the state constitution requires the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to boost ungulate populations for one user group — hunters — at the expense of predator populations. In fact, the Alaska Supreme Court has ruled the constitutional mandate to manage wildlife according to sustained yield applies to predators as well as game animals. 

And contrary to what the Legislature thinks, hunting is not the only common and beneficial use of wildlife. It's not even the most common.

Despite some growing pains, cooperation and coordination between wildlife agencies prevailed for decades after statehood. State and federal wildlife biologists were trained in the same universities and ascribed to the same professional goals.

In 1982, after passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) — federal legislation that created and expanded national wildlife refuges in the state — Fish and Game and Fish and Wildlife signed a Master Memorandum of Understanding.  The agreement stressed coordination and cooperation between the two agencies. Alaska would continue to manage fish and wildlife on federal lands "in their natural diversity." Fish and Wildlife has repeatedly stated it prefers to defer to the state on hunting and trapping regulations in effect on refuges, unless doing so would be "incompatible with refuge goals, objectives, or management plans."


Along came intensive management

Beginning in 1994, intensive management changed the dynamic. Instead of controlling Fish and Game through the time-honored practice of threatening to cut its budget or by exerting political pressure on the Alaska Board of Game, the Legislature tilted the balance toward hunters.

Fish and Game resisted this law for years because it was an unprecedented assault on scientific wildlife management. It uses undefined terms. It doesn't specify what levels of human consumption are required. It's like directing traffic in a straitjacket. Nevertheless, the law compelled the board to adopt regulations to implement intensive management, and the department was forced to follow suit.

According to the law, state predator control is required if hunters aren't satisfied with the number of moose, caribou and deer they are harvesting. Well, the hunting fraternity is never satisfied with the number of game animals it harvests.

Meanwhile, Fish and Wildlife was still operating under the assumption the state would manage fish and wildlife populations on national refuges "in their natural diversity." Wildlife refuges were established principally for the conservation of wildlife in its diverse forms. Hunting is allowed and encouraged, but only as it is consistent with conserving wildlife in its natural diversity.

Significant levels of human harvest of ungulates can alter the natural diversity of prey animals and their predators. Fish and Wildlife seems to acknowledge that people are part of the equation, part of the natural ecosystem; however, it is opposed to converting refuges into game farms.

Fish and Wildlife has conducted predator control in some situations — notably, the eradication of exotic, non-native foxes on many Aleutian Islands. However, it is unwilling to sanction the Alaska Legislature's vision of a moose in every pot at the expense of natural diversity. Thirteen of the 16 federal refuges in Alaska include lands officially designated for intensive management.


Parting company

The new decision prohibits many of the approaches the Board of Game has authorized in the past decade to implement the Intensive Management Act. Among them: capturing and killing bears with snares and foot-hold traps; landing in a plane and shooting a bear on the same day; shooting brown bears attracted to bait stations; and killing bear cubs or sows with cubs except where allowed by state law, which accommodates traditional hunting of bears in dens in some parts of the state. The decision also prohibits killing wolves and coyotes, including pups, during the denning season.

Look at that list, then consider Vincent-Lang's claim that "Alaska will no longer be able to actively manage its fish and wildlife populations on federal lands for their sustained yields and benefits." Hyperbole, anyone? He also seems to suggest that the Fish and Wildlife decision will preclude state management of fish and wildlife outside the national refuges. The sky is falling! The sky is falling!

Contrary to Vincent-Lang's hype, Fish and Wildlife is only prohibiting these practices on national wildlife refuges.

Fish and Game biologists fought the application of these unsportsmanlike and deadly efficient practices for decades, until intensive management became the new norm. But Fish and Game's biologists are no longer even nominally in charge. They were co-opted by political appointees like Vincent-Lang who were happy to follow the dictates of intensive management as required by the Legislature, but also pushed by their bosses, former governors Frank Murkowski, Sarah Palin and Sean Parnell.

Vincent-Lang claims Alaska has "an excellent and well-recognized history of managing its fish and game resources." Well, we used to — before the Legislature monkey-wrenched its management by professionals. Vincent-Lang was part of the problem. He had no education or experience in wildlife conservation when Parnell appointed him director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation.

Before Vincent-Lang was placed in charge of all state wildlife managers, he was a fisheries biologist. Managing fish and game for sustained yield includes all types of legal fishing and hunting, obviously. However, unlike managing fisheries, managing wildlife for a sustained yield includes ensuring opportunities for viewing, photography, scientific research and other legitimate uses. Vincent-Lang never understood that.

I agree with Vincent-Lang that the state should be able to manage its fish and wildlife without federal interference. But Alaska cannot replace science-based wildlife management with politics-based wildlife management and then complain that Fish and Wildlife is destroying the state's science-based wildlife management. The Alaska Legislature has already destroyed it.

The Legislature broke it, and only the Legislature can fix it.

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. Contact him at