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Science, not politics, must rule again at Fish and Game

When Corey Rossi was appointed director of Wildlife Conservation in the Department of Fish and Game, over 50 former ADF&G wildlife biologists sent a strongly worded letter of "no confidence" to Commissioner Cora Campbell. They objected to Rossi's lack of a college degree and his narrow professional experience. Rossi's appointment apparently resulted from pressure on the governor by special interest groups promoting predator control.

It was a political, not a professional, appointment.

Now, with Rossi's departure, the governor and commissioner again have a decision to make on who should lead this important state agency. We can only hope they do not repeat their past mistake.

When I joined ADF&G in 1974 as a wildlife research biologist, I thought that Wildlife Conservation was a highly professional organization led by a division director with many years of experience within the agency. After statehood, the division built a highly effective staff of biologists led by well-qualified administrators. Their research and management became the envy of many other states and provinces.

Wildlife Division directors were generally mid-career professionals. They had college degrees in wildlife management and impressive credentials as managers, researchers and administrators. Most had come up through the ranks of ADF&G but some were hired from outside ADF&G or outside the state. All were well qualified, competent and effective.

And that is exactly what was needed in a state where wildlife management is so important.

Here, we have several species of big game animals. Each is highly sought after by hunters, both residents who hunt for meat or recreation and non-resident trophy hunters who pay large sums of money for a hunting experience available only in the far North. Hunters contribute license and tag fees that fund ADF&G, and spend much for equipment and travel within Alaska. For rural subsistence hunters, harvesting game animals is the basis of the local economy where jobs and cash are scarce.

Small game hunting for hares, grouse, ptarmigan and other species occurs too, as does trapping for fur-bearers. The sale of pelts is one of the few sources of income in many rural areas.

But sustaining hunting and trapping is only part of wildlife management. Alaska offers world-class wildlife viewing and thousands of visitors annually come here to see wildlife species that they cannot see at home. One of the greatest wildlife spectacles on Earth occurs at McNeil River Falls (managed by ADF&G), where large numbers of brown bears fish for salmon. Visitors can experience bears behaving naturally only a few yards away. Like hunters, wildlife viewers contribute a lot to Alaska's economy.

Managing Alaska's wildlife resources for both hunting and viewing has long followed the model used throughout North America where management programs and the regulations that guide them are science-based. ADF&G biologists gather population information from field studies. They carefully monitor harvests. They recommend hunting and trapping season lengths, bag limits and methods of taking animals to the Board of Game. The regulations that result have a professional basis that results in sound conservation and management of a multimillion-dollar resource.

But the wildlife management process breaks down when agency heads are appointed based on a narrow political agenda backed by special interest groups. Political appointees do not respect the proven model of wildlife management that has resulted in decades of success. They lead the agency in dangerous directions by ignoring the first tenet of good management -- to sustain wildlife resources over time through science-based management and sound conservation.

The net result is failed programs and loss of public confidence.

Every state has a fish and game department similar to ours. There is available a rich pool of talented wildlife administrators with many years of professional experience in these agencies. Let's tell Gov. Parnell and Commissioner Campbell to avoid another embarrassing political appointment to head Wildlife Conservation and instead search nationwide for the best person we can find.

We need to get wildlife management in Alaska back on a professional track. Hunters, trappers and wildlife viewers have too much at stake to settle for anything less.

Vic Van Ballenberghe lives in Anchorage and has been a wildlife biologist in Alaska since 1974. He is a former Board of Game member.

By VIC VAN BALLENBERGHE

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