Wolf Song of Alaska News

Alaska's Wildlife Protection Lax, Board Says

Troopers: Officers help troopers at fish and game's expense, Murkowski told

Alex deMarben / Anchorage Daily News / July 22, 2006

In an unusual step that board members say is meant to protect Alaska's wildlife, the state Board of Game has written the governor a letter asking him to overrule one of his Cabinet members.

The governor-appointed board wants to stop wildlife enforcement officers from regularly assisting Alaska state troopers, because the double duty is jeopardizing protection of the state's fields and streams, the July 11 letter says.

In response, Murkowski, who has said he supports the staff merger, said Friday that he intends to convene a working group to assure that wildlife officers have the resources to protect fish and game, said spokesman Karsten Rodvik.

Department of Public Safety Commissioner Bill Tandeske blended the Division of Fish and Wildlife Protection -- whose officers were traditionally called brown-shirt troopers for their uniform -- with the blue-shirted Alaska State Troopers in 2003.

Now they all wear blue shirts. And the state no longer recruits wildlife officers, Tandeske said. People hoping to protect fish and game must serve for at least three months as state troopers before they can apply to become wildlife officers.

The move improved communication, reduced administrative costs and helped relieve the understaffed troopers division without hurting wildlife enforcement, Tandeske has said.

But the two-page letter, addressed to Gov. Frank Murkowski and Senate and House leaders, argues that less attention has been given to fish and game issues and that positions aren't being filled.

With only a month before the crowded Aug. 22 Republican primary, the letter is a golden political opportunity for gubernatorial wannabes.

John Binkley said he opposed the merger and would reinstate the wildlife division. Sarah Palin said she will listen to experts, including the boards of Game and Fish, to decide how to get more wildlife officers into the field.

In the letter, the board asked Murkowski to convene a task force and the Legislature to hold hearings to examine complaints from the public.

At board hearings around the state, people have complained that wildlife officers are spending too much time chasing speeders and transporting prisoners instead of busting poachers, board members have said.

The board has received numerous complaints from the public that game violators are going unpunished, especially near Kotzebue in Northwest Alaska, chairman Mike Fleagle said in an interview Thursday. Fleagle signed the letter.

The wildlife officer who was based in Kotzebue before the merger hasn't been replaced, said Steven Arlow, head of the Alaska Bureau of Wildlife Enforcement. Wildlife officers from other areas fill in temporarily at peak times during the hunting season, he said.

The board also wants the governor and Legislature to consider separating the state's 70 or so wildlife officers from the Alaska State Troopers and reinstating them in their own division.

The letter is unusual, the board wrote, and the language in it is measured. The board is side-stepping the commissioner because he refused a previous request from the boards of Fish and Game, made in a joint March resolution, to consider reinstating the wildlife division and altering recruiting and training, the letter said.

"It is our opinion that this continued evolution away from a major emphasis on fish and wildlife enforcement within the state may appear to be efficient use of Trooper personnel but it is not producing the level of fish and wildlife enforcement necessary to meet the resource protection needs of our state," the letter reads.

The time that wildlife officers spend helping patrol troopers has more than doubled since the merger, according to statistics provided as raw data by the troopers and analyzed by board staff this spring.

Contacts between wildlife personnel and the public are down 20 percent, the board said. Wildlife officers have issued 8 percent fewer warnings. Investigative work such as high-seas stings and big poaching operations raised $1.1 million from wildlife convictions in 1990. That contribution fell to $51,000 in 2005, the data showed.

Tandeske, a 26-year state trooper who came out of retirement to head the department in 2003, said Thursday that the problem isn't the bureaucratic structure.

The state's wildlife officers have helped overworked troopers take dangerous criminals off the streets only during short, seasonal lulls in hunting and fishing seasons, Tandeske said.

"The job's getting done," he said.

The problem is the longtime decline in the number of wildlife officers that began years before the merger in part because of cuts and retirements, he said.

There were more than 100 wildlife troopers in the 1980s. The $12 million Alaska Bureau of Wildlife Enforcement is now authorized for 83 positions. Between 11 and 14 of those have been vacant in recent months, said Arlow, head of the bureau.

The trooper force, including wildlife officers, is around 380 and growing, Tandeske said. That means more candidates who might apply to become wildlife officers.

Now that trooper levels are rising, Tandeske said he might ask the Legislature for about $750,000 to help pay for a new, five-man tactical team of wildlife troopers and equipment to plug gaps around the state.

Daily News reporter Alex deMarban can be reached at ademarban@adn.com or 1-907-257-4310.

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