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Official Joins Sportsmen to Hash Over Game Issues
Complicated: Study of sockeye returns a priority for state Fish and Game head
S.J. Komarnitsky / Anchorage Daily News / December 14, 2005

WASILLA -- Matanuska-Susitna area residents need more moose and salmon to kill and eat.

Dozens of Valley sportsmen delivered that message to state Fish and Game Commissioner McKie Campbell at a three-hour meeting Dec. 7 at Wasilla High School.

"I would love to see 300 moose on the flats as I did when I was a kid," vice chairman Dennis Hamann of the Matanuska Valley Fish and Game Advisory Committee said. He was referring to the lowlands off the Glenn Highway near the Matanuska and Knik rivers, where moose congregate in winter.

Moose numbers have drastically declined in the area in recent years due in part to heavy snows, but some also suspect predation by bears. Of particular concern is area 16B, which includes Skwentna and other wilderness west of the Susitna River.

Campbell said he supports state-authorized shooting of bears and wolves to boost game numbers if backed by the science. But, he said, he has no easy answers.

About 70 people attended the meeting hosted by the advisory committee, including Mat-Su area legislators, the head of the Alaska Outdoor Council and numerous local fishing guides.

Committee chair Wayne Kubat said Campbell is the first wildlife commissioner to meet with the group. The committee, one of 81 such groups across the state, is tasked with discussing area wildlife issues and making recommendations to the state fish and game boards.

Declining moose populations in parts of Mat-Su dominated much of the discussion. Hunters pushed Campbell to authorize state predator control of bears in areas where moose numbers have declined.

As with game issues across the state, the answers are complicated by politics and emotion, Campbell said. The state has authorized wolf kills in some areas to boost moose populations but is moving cautiously before adding new areas to avoid triggering a public backlash, he said.

One mistake could trigger a ripple effect that could shut down the whole program, he said.

In 1995, then Gov. Tony Knowles halted all lethal predator control after problems with a wolf-kill program south of Fairbanks. The practice resumed after Gov. Frank Murkowski's election in 2002.

Killing black bears is difficult because bears are hard to track. Some estimate hunters would need to kill 40 percent of the black bears in an area before moose numbers would increase, Campbell said.

Poisoning is not an option, he said, and allowing calf hunts as a way to boost the moose population simply isn't palatable to the public. The department is working, however, on improving moose habitat with controlled burns, he said.

Poor sockeye returns were also a hot topic.

Returns to Mat-Su this year were among the worst on record, sparking an outcry from Valley fishermen who believe Kenai Peninsula-based commercial fishing fleets are intercepting salmon headed for Mat-Su. Kenai fishermen dispute the claim, but many Valley guides and others want more done to limit the commercial fleets.

Again, Campbell wasn't making promises. While some salmon are being intercepted, it's too easy to assume that's the sole problem, he said.

Other possibilities need to be studied, including potential problems in Mat-Su rivers. Those include more pike eating salmon fry and more beaver dams preventing fish from returning to spawn, he said. Campbell said getting legislative approval for $1 million to study Mat-Su sockeye returns is one of his top priorities.

The meeting was notable for its lack of acrimony. Some attendees made loaded accusations, including that the department favors commercial fishermen over sportfishermen. But heated exchanges that have occurred between local sportsmen and state wildlife officials at other meetings were absent.

Kubat said he was pleased with the turnout. Most meetings are limited to the 15 committee members, he said.

I'm sure some committee members were hoping for promises," he said. "I didn't really expect none."

Reporter S.J. Komarnitsky can be reached at skomarnitsky@adn.com or 352-6714.

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