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The Latest Predator-Control Initiative Idea isn't Good for Alaska
Opinion / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / November 13, 2005

By Wayne Heimer

It's the 50th anniversary of the Alaska Constitution, and Joel "Jaws" Bennett and his friends are circling upward to take another bite out of constitutional government using the initiative process. Their initiative is disguised as a simple amendment of our same-day-airborne hunting law, but it would effectively eliminate wolf control and prevent bear control.

Bennett, originally trained as a lawyer, is a respected wildlife filmmaker twice appointed to the Board of Game by Democratic governors. He's known as a passionate opponent of classic wildlife management and is uniquely qualified as the godfather of ballot box biology because of his passion for postmodern "management," his background in law and his board experience.

While I consider Bennett a friend, we differ on the essence of management, conservation, and constitutional limits on the initiative process.

Bennett and his activist accomplices argue that limiting use of Alaska's wildlife through the initiative process is simple Alaska democracy. I disagree. Section 7 of Article XI in the Alaska Constitution limits what we can do with initiatives. Joel and his friends are out of constitutional bounds in trying to prevent regulatory wildlife allocation to Alaskans through the established Board of Game process through ballot initiatives. Alaska's resources can't be allocated by popular vote.

When Bennett's initiative to ban bear baiting came up, I petitioned the court to settle the "allocation by initiative question."

The court ruled constitutional challenge is appropriate only after an initiative has passed. The present initiative appears unconstitutional, but I won't try to keep it from the ballot this time. If it passes, the brief we prepared for the last initiative will serve well in challenge.

Still, it isn't certain the initiative will even make it to the ballot, because the Department of Fish and Game opposes it. Bennett's past successes required conspicuous Fish and Game silence and "neutrality." Fish and Game Commissioner McKie Campbell has rightly taken to heart the Legislature's addition of defending hunting to his list of duties.

If his department actively participates in public evaluation of the initiative, things will be much more difficult for Bennett's committee.

Additionally, Bennett's fellow activists will have to gather about 8,000 more signatures than last time. This will be harder because more signatures must come from rural Alaska where wolf and bear control are food and survival issues and where urban sensibilities are less relevant.

In the past, petition signatures have been blatantly gathered in violation of Alaska laws. The initiative's sponsors have said they will use professional signature gatherers and "volunteers." Alaska Statute 15.45.130 requires that people circulating petitions be U.S. citizens, at least 18 years old, residents of Alaska, and residents of the House district where they are registered to vote.

It also limits their fees to $1 per signature. If Alaskans are vigilant in asking that those who are circulating petitions prove they meet these criteria, we'll have a cleaner--though hardly "grass-roots"--process.

Even if we have a cleaner process, Alaska has no lack of zealots willing to bind their ethics and morals on others. Nick Jans, one of Bennett's co-sponsors, has clearly stated this is an ethical issue for him.

When I "Googled" Mr. Jans, I found he is a former schoolteacher, whose romantic book about bush living, "Last Light Breaking," gained him recognition as a nature writer.

His latest book, "Grizzly Maze," is Mr. Jans' perhaps exploitative story of bear victim Timothy Treadwell. Mr. Jans was also the author of a recent opinion in USA Today. It begins: "As you stand at the gas pump this summer, think of Alaska. No, not as a fantasy to escape the heat or the price of your latest fill-up. Instead, consider that each spin of the pump's meter means money slurping north, straight from your wallet."

When I "Googled" the other sponsor, I learned "Tom Walker has lived in Alaska since 1963 and has been a patron of Denali National Park since 1969. Recently a park lodge operator described him as 'Denali's greatest living naturalist.'"

Mr. Walker is also a well-known photographer and nature writer who, like Joel's co-sponsor on the bear-baiting initiative, is a former guide apparently soured on classic hunting management. Mr. Walker also uses his reputation as a wildlife photographer to promote conservation on private lands through ecotourism.

"Ecotourism interests" have historically opposed wolf management.

So, the sponsors of this initiative are artists more interested in ethics, photographic and literary exploitation of Alaska's wildlife, and promoting ecotourism than in management of wolves and bears to benefit those Alaskans dependent on game for food.

These aren't traditional Alaska values and shouldn't become Alaska law.

Wayne E. Heimer is a retired biologist of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

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