Wolf Song of Alaska News

Seekins Wants More Oversight of Alaska Fish and Game

R.A. Dillon / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / April 14, 2006

Juneau - A bill that would increase hunting and trapping license fees to pay for more aggressive predator control has been resurrected by sponsor Sen. Ralph Seekins.

The bill brought a strong response from proponents and opponents alike when it was introduced last session.

Sportsmen say the sweeping regulation changes in the bill are long overdue, but the Alaska Department of Fish and Game warns it would limit its ability to manage the state's wildlife.

Seekins said the main aim of the bill is to make Fish and Game more accountable to the Legislature.

Seekins, a Fairbanks Republican, held hearings on the bill across the state during the summer and introduced a slightly modified version in the Senate Resources Committee on Wednesday.

He said the department misspent funds in the past that should have gone to benefit hunters and he wants to make sure the problem isn't repeated.

The bill would require Fish and Game to spend user fees only on programs that enhance game populations and harvesting opportunities. Seekins said the department had previously spent funds to establish wildlife viewing programs that should have gone to increase moose and caribou populations.

Hunters and trappers who fund the department through users fees should see the benefit of those funds, he said.

The state constitution says wildlife and other natural resources should be managed for the maximum benefit of the people. Fish and Game hasn't followed that mandate, he said.

"People want to have a reasonable opportunity to harvest close to home, so we need to be able to manage game populations," he said.

The bill would require the state to make increasing the amount of game available for human consumption its top priority and would restrict funding the department is allowed spend on animals not destined for the dinner table.

The bill requires the department to get approval from the Board of Game before making policy changes and prohibits transferring more than $20,000 from one project to another without legislative approval.

The bill would ramp up the cost of license fees between 2007 and 2011, putting most of the increases on nonresidents.

Under the bill, resident hunting licenses would increase incrementally from $25 to $60. Nonresidents would bear the majority of the burden of the increases through higher license and big game tag fees.

Seekins said the extra money would pay for more aggressive management of game animals, mainly through stepped-up predator control programs, including expanded rules for killing bears.

State Fish and Game Commissioner McKie Campbell said some of the changes are positive, but he said the bill goes too far.

Campbell said he supports raising licensing fees because the department has not seen an increase since 1992. But he said the rates suggested by the department last year were more appropriate.

Campbell said he was also in favor of a provision to allow the sale of mounts and trophies in the state.

But other sections trouble him, especially those that require Fish and Game to seek approval from the Game Board before making policy decisions, a change that would likely bring work in the field to a standstill.

"That leads pretty quickly to a full-time board instead of the volunteer board we currently have," he said.

Campbell also raised concerns about limits the bill places on departmental spending. He said biologists need to be able to redirect money for a study in case of unforeseen weather conditions without having to get approval from the Legislature.

"We all agree that transparency and accountability are a good thing, but we disagree on the approach that's being taken," said Sara Gilbertson, special assistant to Campbell. "This bill takes a lot of power and authority away from the department and gives it to the Board of Game and the Legislature."

The bill would allow same-day aerial hunting of bears in certain management areas. While hunters could not shoot a bear from the air, they could guide hunters to the bear or land and then shoot them.

"It allows you to locate the bear and then you have to mount the hunt," he said.

Seekins said the measure was not about sport hunting, but about encouraging private citizens to assist the state in controlling predator populations.

"What we're after in predator control is an efficient method of controlling populations," he said.

The bill would make it legal for residents to take up to two nonresidents on bear hunts annually in areas of intensive management. It would also allow a hunter to harvest an animal on behalf of another licensed resident.

The bill would also impact subsistence users, compelling subsistence fishermen to purchase a sport fishing license and requiring the department to gather information on subsistence harvests.

Senate Resources is expected to take up the bill again April 21.

The bill is Senate Bill 170.

Staff writer R.A. Dillon can be reached at (907) 463-4893 or rdillon@newsminer.com .

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