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Chairman Uses Personal History as Guide

State of Alaska / Game Board

Joel Gay / Anchorage Daily News / May 30, 2005

Fleagle says more animals would mean reduction in conflict

Alaska is known worldwide for its moose, bears, wolves and other magnificent creatures, and almost as well for the battles over how those animals are used -- who gets to hunt them, how many are killed or whether they're protected from guns, traps and snares.

Such arguments are settled by the seven-member, all-volunteer Alaska Board of Game, and riding herd over the board these days is chairman Mike Fleagle, a longtime McGrath resident now living in Anchorage. He sat down recently to share his thoughts, condensed here, on a range of issues, from killing wolves to subsistence rights to respect.

Fleagle was born in Tanana nearly 46 years ago to an Inupiaq mother and a white father. The family settled in Manley Hot Springs, where Fleagle and his siblings learned to hunt, trap and fish out of necessity.
"We relied very heavily on what the land provided -- gardens in the summertime, fish and wildlife. And I'm not only talking moose and caribou, but grouse, ptarmigan, rabbit," he said.

That family history informs much of what he decides on the board, he said, a stint that began in 1996 and has continued almost unbroken since then under two governors.

"I don't get too involved with the controversy over who was here first," Fleagle said. "I'm half and half. I just remember growing up in Manley in the 1960s when that really wasn't an issue. We had whites there since the 1920s. We just didn't differentiate between who was residing out there at the time. We all used the resources. I guess my underlying philosophy is to maintain that use pattern for all users, and do it to where populations are sustainable and available."

Q. For most of your life you've lived in the Bush. Should urban hunters have less access to Alaska's game than rural residents?

A. On a purely selfish level, yes. Because there were times, even growing up in Manley, when you'd have pickups with boat trailers, motor homes, hordes of people from Fairbanks coming down the road, and obviously we were trying to find a moose that would sustain us.

But then we had friends from Fairbanks that would come out and it was perfectly OK for them to hunt. So it puts you in this little conundrum -- sure, we don't mind outside people coming, just don't bring everybody. I think you'll find that mentality with most rural people. They don't mind sharing the resources. It's just when these hordes of people come in and make it hard for the local people to get game.

Q. Would you support a constitutional amendment giving rural residents a preference when game stocks run low?

A. You would have to ask me that. (Laughs.) If it came to a vote, I would probably vote for it. ... I completely understand and respect the argument that (urban and rural hunters) have the same cultural reasons for wanting to hunt -- it's to share, it's the tradition, we like our game meat too. But economics have to come into play somewhere. Folks who live in rural areas have gasoline that costs at least double (that in cities). If you're not successful in getting game, you have to buy meat or ship it in.
My whole approach has been to try to avoid that (question) and get back to why we're in that situation -- we have a lack of game. Let's get back to providing an abundance of game and we can avoid this rural-preference-in-times-of-shortage issue.

Q. Some people think it's wrong that a Bush resident who earns $75,000 a year and owns an airplane can qualify for federal subsistence rights. Is that system fair?

A. That's the only way you could do it. Natives who live in rural Alaska aren't looking for charitable handouts when they say we want rights to our game. They're just looking to continue eons of lifestyle. (A high-paying job) shouldn't disqualify them from practicing the lifestyle that their people have done for thousands of years.

Q. If the rural resident is non-Native and just came up from Ohio, does that make a difference?

A. To a lot of people it does. I'd hate to see us further divided, either racially or income-wise. I think if we're going to go this route -- and it may be inevitable that the state does put it to a vote -- I think we should keep it based on rural versus urban, on questions of access to other resources and that it should apply to everyone in a rural area. We've gone through the race stuff. We need to just get away from that. We need to recognize that we're a homogenous community in Alaska now and figure out how to make things work from there.

Q. Opponents of predator control say killing wolves and bears to produce more moose and caribou is moose ranching. Is that a good analogy?

A. I wouldn't call it ranching. Another word you might use is husbandry, like reindeer herders. You're just trying to maintain a healthy population. Whatever you call it, (opponents) may criticize that, but we're constitutionally and statutorily mandated to do it.

History has shown us from the early days of the last century when the federal government was actually trying to eradicate wolves in Alaska, they weren't able to. I'm not sure why people are worried now that we're going to do it. I think the only way you're going to do it is the way they did it Outside, which is to continue human expansion until you use up all their range.

Q. Should there be more nonlethal predator control, such as sterilizing wolves or transporting bears long distances?

A. I don't think so. ... It's too expensive.

Q. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game wants to raise hunting license fees. Many hunters oppose the hike, unless the state guarantees it will produce more moose and caribou. Would you support higher fees?

A. I know they have a need, (at least partly because) there are so many areas in need of intensive management, and the reason for that is because of Fish and Game's inaction during the previous administration. If Fish and Game was allowed to just do the work it was supposed to for those eight years, I don't think we'd see the serious need we now have. ... (But) I'll pay a higher fee just to ensure the right to be able to hunt.

Q. Should Fish and Game's primary goal be to create more animals for human consumption?

A. You bet. The statute says consumptive use is the highest and preferred use. We should be out there enhancing the population so that they can provide more harvest opportunity. ... We know this land will carry a lot more animals than it does on its own natural level.

All the complaints (about invading hordes of nonlocal hunters) is because all those hunters got squeezed out of the Yukon Flats, unit 13, unit 16B, unit 19 (as moose stocks declined). ... As you get more and more hunters squeezed into smaller and smaller population pockets, conflicts are going to rise. If we can get the state back on track to have healthy game populations to where people can just go and spread out again, I think we'll have a win-win-win.

Q. Should voters have a say in wildlife management, what some call ballot box biology?

A. It's terribly unfair, because the people that are trying to protect a use pattern or privilege or right that is being taken away at the ballot box generally aren't as organized or funded as the groups pushing for it. ... I don't think it's fair, but it is the democratic process.

Q. Backers of initiatives such as the ban on aerial wolf hunting say they're forced to the ballot box because they're shut out of the Game Board process. Should those who favor non-consumptive uses of wildlife have seats on the board?

A. I'm not opposed to having them on the board at all. I embraced it when Nicole Whittington Evans (was named). I respected her opinion. The board still moved forward with these issues (such as predator control) because majority rules, but I certainly wouldn't be opposed at all to have that balancing viewpoint on the board.

Q. A dozen musk oxen were found killed illegally this winter. Some say that if an animal presents itself, the hunter is obligated to take it. How can ancient subsistence traditions blend with modern technology and an increasing population?

A. They have to change. We can't just go out and pop everything that moves just because it's there. Alaska is not the same place it was 1,000 or 500 years ago. We have to adjust to the fact we have a new society, a new system. I know there are staunch tribal-rights advocates who disagree with this, who say we have aboriginal rights and this is our land and we can do what we want. But I don't take that view. We really do need to work with the system.

Q. Is the state's wildlife enforcement effort adequate?

A. Absolutely not. Especially when they rolled the (Alaska State Troopers and Fish and Wildlife Protection) divisions into one bureau. ... You've got troopers doing dual duty, and they're just inadequate. You've got a lot of public safety issues out there the troopers should be dealing with. Then you have fish and game violations that wildlife enforcement should be dealing with.

Q. What have you learned from your time on the board?

A. I've been thanked by some wildlife protection advocates for giving them the respect that they're due, giving them their crack at the process. And that's what I've learned. I've learned they're not wrong, per se. They just have a different value system and thought process and it needs to be recognized. It needs to be not only recognized, it needs to be respected.

I hope that my legacy after I'm off the board is not just that I was key in getting predator control reinstituted in the state, but that I was fair and respectful of all views.

Daily News reporter Joel Gay can be reached at jgay@adn.com or at 257-4310.

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