Alaska is about to embark on a public relations effort to polish its image, an image tarnished by things like the now-infamous "bridges to nowhere." But the state also wants to sell its predator control programs. How hard will it be to sell predator control to reluctant buyers in Detroit, Dallas and Denver? I believe it's a tough sell under the best of circumstances, and if the truth emerges, misled buyers will likely have remorse.
In mid-May the Alaska Board of Game met in Anchorage to consider predator control. In my view, the board made a tough sell even tougher by its actions. The land area subject to wolf and bear control increased to nearly 70,000 square miles. As if aerial shooting of wolves wasn't controversial enough, the board targeted grizzly and black bears too. It approved shooting bears the same day a hunter is airborne in certain areas, a practice long illegal for most big game species.
But the most flagrant act committed by the board that will rile up even supporters of predator control occurred at the May meeting. The board voted to remove a sentence from all of the existing control programs that required the Fish and Game commissioner to reduce predators efficiently, safely and humanely. Are we now to assume that nothing restrains the agents of predator control, that they are now free to be inefficient, unsafe and inhumane?
In January, after a Superior Court judge ruled that the board had acted illegally in establishing five predator control programs, emergency regulations were adopted so the programs could continue without delay. In May, the board made the new regulations permanent and added several new provisions. These included adding about 18,000 square miles to an existing aerial wolf shooting area near Tok, adding a bear control area near McGrath, expanding a bear control area near Tok, and allowing the sale of bear hides taken in control areas.
These are the most recent measures in a large-scale predator control program that began in 2003 under the administration of Frank Murkowski. After predator control was shunned by governors Bill Sheffield, Steve Cowper and Tony Knowles, the Murkowski administration came in with guns blazing. In contrast to past programs in which Fish and Game employees shot wolves from helicopters, present programs allow private pilots to do the shooting. Two ballot initiatives in 1996 and 2000 prohibiting this practice passed by large margins, but the Legislature found loopholes to allow it again. Last winter, about 100 pilots took about 150 wolves and about 1,500 more wolves were taken by trappers and hunters.
In addition to aerial wolf shooting, wolf hunting and trapping seasons and bag limits were greatly expanded. In some areas the season is closed only in June and July and the bag limit is 10 wolves per day. Hunters on snowmachines can pursue wolves. Nearly everything possible was legalized so that more wolves could be shot and trapped.
Bears have come under the gun too. Studies show that they also eat moose, both calves and adults. Reducing them may result in more moose, and the board has lengthened hunting seasons, increased bag limits and allowed baiting of grizzlies in certain areas, something that previously applied only to black bears.
These measures are all highly controversial. For years, predator control has been one of the hot-button issues in Alaska and it's even hotter elsewhere in the world. Those who try to sell it as sound science and good public policy have an uphill battle. As one involved with this issue for decades, I believe that any sales pitch will fail in the long run.
Vic Van Ballenberghe has conducted research on moose and wolves in Alaska since 1974 and is a former member of the Game Board.