As a longtime Alaska wildlife biologist, I am commenting on two wildlife policy issues that I hope voters and candidates will address before upcoming elections.
The first issue involves the role of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in the review and permitting of development projects. Writers of our state constitution recognized the need to develop timber, oil and mineral resources but also recognized that development must be balanced with protection of fish and wildlife. To accomplish this, they established two agencies, the Department of Natural Resources with developmental responsibility and the Department Fish and Game with protection of fish and wildlife and associated permitting responsibilities.
The first Alaska Legislature agreed that habitat protection should be with the Department of Fish and Game when it passed statutes defining basic responsibilities of state agencies. The two-department approach assures checks and balances in development decisions and worked well until the Murkowski administration disbanded the Fish and Game's Habitat Division and moved remaining Habitat Division employees into the Department of Natural Resources. All five Fish and Game commissioners who had served in previous administrations opposed this move.
After permitting responsibilities had been transferred to the Department of Natural Resources, the commissioners of Environmental Conservation, Natural Resources, and Fish and Game agreed that they would speak with one voice and not provide a written record of discussion on controversial subjects. They stated that internal cooperative discussion instead of written documentation, available to the public, is good policy that will trim red tape and promote efficiency.
This was clearly a backward step. Fish and Game biologists in field offices, who often are the most knowledgeable about projects in their areas, no longer have a way to submit information directly to those making regulatory decisions. A record of debate, disagreement and dissenting comments is no longer available to the public or for the administrative record of decision. The Department of Fish and Game, the only state agency with a mandate to conserve wildlife and fishery resources, can no longer advocate for fish and wildlife on controversial issues and thereby fulfill that mandate. Also, there is no clear way for developers to use the expertise of Fish and Game biologists to help design projects to minimize environmental impacts.
I suggest that voters question candidates on how to bring transparency and full Alaska Department of Fish and Game participation to the review and permitting process for development projects.
A second major issue is how to put an effective fish and wildlife enforcement program in place. Fish and wildlife, some of our most important resources, have subsistence, recreational, aesthetic and commercial values. Enforcement of regulations, along with an informational and educational component, is an integral part of good wildlife management. The Murkowski administration, without clear reasons or public comment, has downgraded the wildlife enforcement branch of state government so that wildlife enforcement agents are spending less time on wildlife-related activities and more time on nonwildlife activities.
A recent letter from the boards of Fisheries and Game to the governor noted that this change has resulted in a 24 percent decrease in fish and wildlife patrol and investigation time and a 20 percent decrease in fish and wildlife contacts, along with a 50 percent increase in non-fish-and-wildlife citations and a 75 percent increase in non-fish-and-wildlife warnings by wildlife enforcement agents. The amount of money that comes into the state Fish and Game fund from fines is down significantly. This is occurring even as the wildlife and fisheries economy of Alaska increases. This growth includes a great expansion of fishing charter fleets, more wildlife viewing and expansion in the transporter industry serving viewers, hunters and fishermen.
Instead of downgrading, the fisheries and wildlife enforcement program needs to be upgraded with more funding, more enforcement agents and more autonomy. It may be time to consider return of wildlife enforcement to the Department of Fish and Game, as worked successfully for the first few years after statehood.
I urge candidates to become informed and develop a position on fish and wildlife enforcement and for outdoor users to let candidates know how they feel on the issue.
Big projects, including the Pebble prospect and gas pipeline, are proposed for Alaska. Voters and candidates can affect how fish and wildlife values are protected as these projects go forward.
Jack Lentfer, an Alaska wildlife biologist since 1957, has worked for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He has served on the Alaska Board of Game and the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission. He lives in Homer.