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Early Aerial Wolf Hunt Foe in Alaska
Dies at Age 83 - Jim Brooks -

Former Fish and Game commissioner helped end war on state's predators

Craig Medred / Outdoors / Anchorage Daily News / June 11, 2006

The man who did more than anyone to end the war on predators in Alaska died May 19 at his home near Juneau.

Former Commissioner of Fish and Game Jim Brooks slipped away with little notice, but then Alaskans can be quick to forget their history.

"The news didn't get out at all," said old friend Jim Rearden, former outdoors editor of Alaska Magazine. Rearden figures the 83-year-old, who finally succumbed to cancer, would have wanted it that way.

Never one to seek the limelight, the mild-mannered Brooks still found himself in it often during five decades of involvement with Alaska conservation issues.

Jim Brooks

Jim Brooks in 1972


"He was very, very influential," noted Rearden, who first met Brooks in Fairbanks in 1949. Rearden was then organizing a Department of Wildlife Management at the University of Alaska. Brooks, though several years older, become one of the first students in the new department.

By then the high-school dropout from Erie, PA, had already lived the kind of colorful life that only seems possible in Alaska:

Ketchikan dishwasher, Southeast Alaska commercial salmon troller, Alaska Railroad gandy dancer, Willow gold miner, Nenana grease monkey, Kantishna dog musher and trapper, and finally -- like friend and former Alaska Gov. Jay Hammond -- a pilot.

Hammond, who preceded Brooks in death, flew fighters. Brooks flew B-24 Liberator bombers over Italy in World War II. At the war's end, he flew one back to the United States and almost immediately headed north again for Alaska to pursue a life that in many ways paralleled Hammond's.

Brooks married Bertha Schaeffer, a woman from a prominent Kotzebue family. He flew Bush planes for an air taxi in the Dillingham area. He spent as much time as he could hunting and fishing, which fueled his curiosity about Alaska marine mammals -- walrus, polar bears and seals.

As a student at UAF, he began the first scientific studies on walruses, but it was his work with seals and sea lions that generated serious changes in how Alaska wildlife was viewed.

From the time Brooks started studying sea lions for the Territorial Department of Fisheries in the 1950s, through a long stint at Fish and Game until his retirement from public service as the Alaska Region Chief of Management and Enforcement for the National Marine Fisheries Service in 1991, he was a leader in changing attitudes.

Brooks not only helped end the indiscriminate killing of everything from seals to wolves, he helped change their status from competitors with humans for food to valuable species with key roles in the functioning of healthy, natural environments.

When Brooks went to work for the Alaska Territorial Department of Fisheries in the 1950s, writes Rearden, department employees were involved in an organized effort to eradicate salmon-eating seals.

"The shot them with rifles and shotguns, and at rookeries killed hundreds at a time with underwater blasts of dynamite," wrote Rearden. "Brooks was put in charge of this program, which he despised. He managed to see it stopped."

Brooks later managed to head off a similar program to slaughter beluga whales after they were blamed for a crash in red salmon populations in Bristol Bay.

"Brooks spent the summer of 1955 in Bristol Bay studying the problem," writes Rearden. "I joined him as helper for a couple of weeks. He collected belugas to examine their stomach contents, counted the salmon they held, estimated the number of belugas and evaluated their impact.

"Brooks concluded the impact of belugas on adult salmon in Bristol Bay was insignificant. In later years, both of us expressed regret at the necessity of proving this by having to kill several dozen of the gentle, harmless little whales."

Brooks temporarily left Alaska in the late 1950s to pursue doctoral studies at the University of British Columbia (he earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Alaska Fairbanks while studying wildlife in the state) but was summoned back at statehood by Gov. Bill Egan.

Egan asked Brooks to draft the laws to govern wildlife management in the state. Brooks did so, and in 1959 became the first director of the Division of Game within the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

He promptly began a job-recruiting drive that brought some of the nation's best young wildlife biologists to Alaska to study ptarmigan, caribou, moose, wolves, deer, sea otters and more. Some of the work he set in motion is still cited to this day.

But Brooks' high-profile position, along with a determination to prevent science from being dominated by politics, earned him enemies.

When Walter Hickel was elected to his first term as governor in 1966, he fired Brooks.

Non-plussed, the biologist took a job studying polar bears for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It wasn't long, however, before he was pulled away from that work to examine the environmental practices of oil companies beginning exploration at Prudhoe Bay.

Brooks documented ugly craters left in the tundra by explosives then used for seismic testing; outlined how tracked vehicles tore up the tundra, leaving scars that wouldn't heal for decades; and criticized the practice of storing liquid waste from drilling in open ponds.

His detailed report on environmental abuses led to a commendation from Secretary of the Interior Walter Hickel, the same man who had fired Brooks from Fish and Game before accepting an invitation to join the Nixon Cabinet in Washington, D.C.

With Hickel gone, Egan was elected to another term as governor, and in July 1972 appointed Brooks Fish and Game commissioner.
One of Brooks' first acts was to end uncontrolled aerial wolf hunting.

At the time, Brooks noted that with the creation of the new Alaska Department of Fish and Game, wolves had been reclassified as big-game animals and fur bearers, not vermin.

"No longer were they 'bad,' to be slaughtered whenever and wherever," writes Rearden. "Now they were a big-game animal and a furbearer and a valuable part of the environment."

Brooks served as Fish and Game commissioner until 1977, leaving to join NMFS at a time when the U.S. 200-mile fisheries conservation zone was beginning to enforce controls on foreign fleets that had decimated Alaska's offshore fisheries.It was another war on predators, of a different sort, and Brooks spent the last 14 years of his professional career heavily involved in it.

 

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