Feds way off target in opposition to Alaska's hunting rules

Many in the outdoor community are probably aware that recently approved regulations by the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will supersede state authorized hunting opportunities they've determined are either forms of predator control, ethically challenged, part of a war on wildlife, or attempts, as one Fish and Wildlife official accused, to drive predators to "ecological insignificance."

Nothing could be further from the truth, and as a career wildlife biologist and chair of the Alaska Board of Game, I feel an obligation to respond from my personal perspective with some facts on the issue.

There is no war on wildlife, either predators or prey. The board has not implemented a predator control program in over two years and suspended predator control on the southern Alaska caribou herd after that program successfully rebuilt a once depressed herd.

What we strive to do, consistent with the Alaska Constitution and law, is to manage the wildlife of Alaska on the sustained yield concept, balancing predators, prey and habitat to provide beneficial opportunities for all Alaskans to enjoy in a variety of ways.

This includes setting aside viewing areas where no hunting is allowed (e.g., the McNeil River sanctuary) and to provide sustainable opportunities for hunters to harvest animals using traditional methods and means. We never allow unsustainable management practices as asserted  by the federal agencies. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. It would be against state law to do so, not to mention against my profession's goal for conservation and wise use of resources.

[OPPOSING VIEW: Fish and Wildlife Service wise to oppose Alaska's war on wolves in refuges]

Some of the practices the Park Service and Fish and Wildlife now prohibits under state regulation as being forms of predator control were specifically recognized by the Game Board as NOT being predator control.


The harvest of bears in dens is a clear example. This is a traditional harvest method practiced by Interior Alaska Natives, a practice with origins in the distant past. It was technically illegal under state law until the people who practice it asked us to recognize it, so it could be passed on to the next generation.

At the Game Board meetings where this issue was considered, the users' requests were compelling and logical, and the board authorized use only in areas where it has been traditionally practiced for eons. I challenge anyone to show a change in the harvest rate or conservation status of bears where this use is now permitted legally. It simply allows local users to hunt bears as they always have without fear of prosecution.

And, if it was such an ethical concern as Dan Ashe, Fish and Wildlife director, stated in a disingenuous, anti-hunting, preservation-posturing Huffington Post column, then why did his agency adopt a federal subsistence regulation allowing the same practice using the same language as the board? Ashe's reasoning turns logic on its head.

Also, are we driving predators to "ecological insignificance" as a Fish and Wildlife official stated in a "high-fiving" message to all Alaska Fish and Wildlife staff? Simply, and factually, no.

There is no evidence that we have done so anywhere in our state with any species of predator or prey, and I challenge anyone to show we have. I can however, point out that under the management of Fish and Wildlife, the Unimak caribou herd has certainly been driven to not only "ecological insignificance," but near extirpation.

By not allowing the state to bring the wolf population on Unimak Island into balance with the caribou herd the abundance of these animals has been driven to such low levels no one can use them, including the residents from area villages who long depended on them for subsistence. I'd also like to point out that both the subsistence use and the sustainability of this herd are congressionally mandated purposes of this refuge, and Fish and Wildlife is failing to maintain it.

[Feds wage war on Alaska management of its fish and game]

The agency justifies this lack of management, the application of a passive management regime, as complying with its extreme interpretation of "natural diversity." To me, this policy is the real story we should be talking about. Predator control, methods and means, bag limits and seasons, all pale in comparison to the effects of this one policy.

Basically, the two federal agencies are taking the view that they can't allow any manipulations of wildlife populations not consistent with natural diversity, especially if it benefits humans for food. It was for this reason, the application of an extreme interpretation of natural diversity, the Association of Fish Wildlife Agencies (representing all 50 states), the majority of Federal Subsistence Advisory Councils, numerous village councils, most all of Alaska's wildlife conservation organizations and a clear majority of individual Alaskans who have testified to our board and to  Fish and Wildlife have objected to these changes. The agency noted in the published rule that it had counted each letter as an individual comment, reducing the voiced concerns of thousands of Alaskans to a relatively few comments.

But what does "natural diversity" mean in its actual application? Can we maintain moose and caribou herds with altered ratios of males to females, a long established management technique backed by sound science that allows for human use and sustainability of the animals? Is it "natural?"

I'll boldly answer that by saying "no." It isn't natural and we don't pretend it is. But it allows for continuation of the hunting tradition that millions of Americans value, as well as wildlife viewing, photography and other uses. How about the use of human ignited fire as a management tool? Is it "natural?"  Nope. But it too is a management tool used for many purposes, including habitat improvement and reducing fire danger, both crucial issues near my home on the Kenai Peninsula.

Unfortunately many believe this is about predator control. But it is not, and it's a distraction to the real issue — implementation of a policy that gives unprecedented power to federal managers, destroys the public process, ignores federal law and congressional intent. We are progressing into a new era, where federal agencies are becoming the fourth branch of the government and exercising inappropriate authority like we have never seen before, subsequently diminishing individual states' authority.

The Game Board will continue to base decisions on sound science, protect the resources under a sustainable yield principle, and defend the Alaska way of life.

Ted Spraker is a wildlife biologist and chairman of the Alaska Board of Game. He lives in Soldotna.