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Impossible to Accept the Claim of 'Impossible Standard' on Wolves in Alaska

Vic Van Ballenberghe / Opinion / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / January 15, 2006

I laughed when I read the News-Miner's "Impossible Standard" editorial (Jan. 8, 2006) regarding the latest ballot initiative on wolf control. The editorial claimed that the initiative would set "impossible, idyllic, politically based" standards for wolf control, standards that would result in hunters losing the chance to get a "moose for the freezer."
Apparently, the editor didn't realize that the initiative language is identical to that passed by Alaska's voters in 1996 by a large margin and similar in intent to another ballot measure passed in 2000. To hear the editor tell it, hunters should have lost the chance to kill moose after 1996. In fact, hunters have killed 6,000 to 8,000 moose annually in Alaska since the 1970s.

Yes, there are some areas where moose have declined, but there are others where moose have increased. Ironically, moose near Fairbanks (the hotbed of wolf control fervor) are now too numerous, and hunters are being asked to shoot cows and calves to prevent habitat destruction and reduce motor vehicle collisions. And moose near Fairbanks increased at a time when the "biological emergency standard" was approved by the Alaska Board of Game, the same standard that the editorial claims is now impossible to apply.

The editorial claimed that hunters in the eastern Interior and Nelchina Basin now "see dozens of wolves and bears where they used to hunt caribou and moose." When I was on the Game Board 20 years ago, I heard similar tales. If they were true, how do we have any moose and caribou left today and why are Nelchina caribou permits still in high demand? The Nelchina herd increased during the 1980s and 1990s to 55,000 by 1996 when the board approved a plan to kill 15,000 caribou in one year.

Maybe that is why hunters see fewer caribou now than before. And Nelchina wolves have always been controlled, first by land-and-shoot hunting, then by snowmachine hunting and trapping, and now by aerial permits as well as hunting and trapping.

I doubt if anyone there, including pilots, now sees dozens of wolves.

Despite this, the editorial was right to focus on standards for predator control, but it got the main issue exactly backward. The fact is that we had sound standards for predator control in place prior to the current administration, but now we have political standards dictated by the intensive management law. The current game board has replaced sound science with local opinion.

Local residents only need to claim fewer moose and more wolves in their area to get the board's attention. In three decades of attending board meetings, I've never heard rural residents say there were plenty of moose or too few wolves, not even in places like Fairbanks where biologists know moose are numerous.

Problems of relying too much on local opinion were evident at McGrath, where residents claimed few moose in the 1990s. Preliminary surveys indicated about 850 moose when 3,500 were estimated as necessary to supply the recommended annual harvest of up to 150. A planning team recommended moving bears, shooting wolves and closing the moose hunting season in order to rebuild moose. After the plan was approved, a better census indicated 3,600 moose, enough to supply the needed harvest, and control plans were suspended. But the current board resurrected the plan, relying once again on local opinion rather than proven wildlife management principles, and there is now aerial hunting of wolves at McGrath.

It's not that we lack expertise or sound guidelines. In 1997 the state commissioned the National Research Council to review predator control in Alaska. A blue ribbon panel that included several Alaskans provided a report with numerous recommendations that guided the planning process for McGrath.

Now, the board ignores those recommendations, preferring instead to believe that local opinion rather than sound science should drive approval of predator control programs.

Rather than setting impossible standards, the current initiative attempts to return to standards already twice approved by Alaska's voters. Despite the Legislature's efforts to restrict voters' constitutional rights on wildlife issues, the electorate knows when the game board acts outside the mainstream. Hunters should also know that managing wildlife with sound science and proven conservation principles will produce more game. Relying only on political standards and local opinion will not. Don't let the editorial fool you into thinking otherwise.
Vic Van Ballenberghe is a wildlife biologist who has researched moose and wolves in Alaska since 1974. He was appointed to the game board three times by two governors.


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