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Hickel's Curse Grips Governor's Fish and Game Decisions

Opinion / Fairbanks Daily News Miner / November 28, 2004
By Wayne Heimer

The Thanksgiving Day Community Perspective column by Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Kevin Duffy contained only selected facts. Duffy was correct in stating that Gov. Murkowski is the most pro-management governor we've had in decades, and I appreciate that change in direction.
However, Mr. Duffy's reference to allowing "... the least controversial methods that will allow us to achieve our goals" looks like spin. I think it's spin because the governor, now running for re-election, just broke a major promise to the hunting community, which was instrumental in his first election.

Three weeks ago, Gov. Murkowski forced reversal of a Board of Game finding for political reasons. The press didn't report it, and the governor's advisers hoped the public wouldn't notice. But last week, the governor's office learned a small, concerned (and likely to be vocal) segment of the public knew. Hence the need for spin. After all, even though Commissioner Duffy "respects the ... concerns" of Alaskans who oppose active wildlife management, there are lots of pro-management votes out there. Murkowski must maintain these votes.

I infer the governor's goal is to do as much predation control as possible (to keep hunting voters happy) without significantly alienating anti-management voters. Apparently, the governor and his Department of Fish and Game advisers still fear the "predation controversy industry." I suggest this is because they have inherited Hickel's Curse, the notion that the governor needs to protect Alaska from the scorn of nonresident animal protectionists for economic reasons.

Hickel's Curse was born in 1992 when then-Gov. Walter Hickel and Fish and Game legitimized the "predation controversy industry" by inviting it to participate in Alaska's affairs at Wally's wolf summit. There, Hickel folded under threat of an ecotourism boycott over helicopter use, which was efficient but not "fair" and banned helicopters from predation control. This subsequently gave us the Fish and Game wolf-trapping debacle on national TV and Tony Knowles, Hickel's successor, marking his emotional high ground to block predator control for eight years.

Hickel's action seemingly established a gubernatorial prerogative and a Fish and Game mind-set that have stymied human/predator competition ever since. After Hickel, Gov. Knowles prevented predator control through bold use of Hickel's newly minted gubernatorial imperative. Gov. Murkowski is clearly more management-active but has not yet broken Hickel's Curse.

Murkowski's team has twice demonstrated it remains under Hickel's Curse by directly interfering with Board of Game decisions.

First, the governor excluded helicopters from reducing wolf numbers near McGrath. This decision gave us control agents as game violators within a year.

Recently, Fish and Game leaders credited the governor's office with reversing a board decision that could have allowed land-and-shoot grizzly bear harvests as part of a bear-control program. The board had deliberated vigorously on the issue, having been told the governor wouldn't meddle this time, and included the option for land-and-shoot hunting in a board finding. Almost immediately, the "Governor's Office" changed his/its mind and told the board to delete this finding. The board's majority complied.

Subsequently, I drafted a critical Community Perspective column that found its way to the governor's office. Soon, the deputy commissioner of wildlife called, saying the chief of staff had told him to call, suggesting that I hold that column. The deputy commissioner said he had intervened because "It was just too controversial." He said land-and-shoot bear harvesting was "new" (It's not). He also said Friends of Animals and Defenders of Wildlife would "Have a field day with it." (Fish and Game was already getting hateful calls about increased wolf control.) Also, he said that "The professional grizzly bear biologists would come out against it" and that a Tok advisory committee member had told him "It wouldn't do any good."

To me, these ad hoc justifications seem more fearful of the controversy industry than faithful to the management principles in Alaska's Constitution.

Why is the governor still hostage to the "controversy industry" via Hickel's Curse? I'm guessing that, in addition to innate gubernatorial hubris, the governor's Fish and Game leaders haven't kept him well informed. After all, they left him twisting in the wind over the calf moose harvest last spring when he got pilloried in the New York Times for killing wolves (to stimulate moose survival) while killing calves (to lower moose populations).

It looks like we remain hostage to the controversy industry via Hickel's Curse. The words of the captain from "Cool Hand Luke" now come to mind: "What we have here is a failure to communicate."

Wayne E. Heimer is a retired Department of Fish and Game biologist living in Fairbanks.


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