Alaska's wildlife management is a mess. Maybe it's always been that way, but these things tend to go in cycles. And things have gone from bad to worse to horrible since the early 1990s, particularly when it comes to state-run management programs that attempt to balance relations between ungulates and predators. More specifically, I'm talking about moose, caribou, bears, wolves and humans.
The upcoming election could mark the return to more reasonable wildlife management philosophies or continue the sad story that's been played out for the past 10 to 15 years. As one of many Alaskans who care about all of Alaska's wildlife, I'm determined to help correct the imbalance of the present regime.
The roots of this current mess -- travesty might be a more appropriate term -- can be traced to the Alaska Legislature, which in the early to mid-1990s went through something of a regime shift, with many of the new members sympathetic to the desires of certain "sportsmen's" groups, most prominently the Alaska Outdoors Council, whose members are largely white, male and urban.
In the mid-1990s, legislators passed so-called "intensive wildlife management" laws that essentially required the Board of Game and Division of Wildlife Conservation to do whatever is necessary to maximize moose, caribou and other ungulate populations for sport hunters. Good science be damned.
The Legislature's actions were opposed by nearly every credible wildlife biologist in Alaska. The Alaska Chapter of The Wildlife Society (an organization of professional wildlife scientists) lobbied against intensive management, calling it "counterproductive to sound wildlife management," and predicted the law "will result in needless and undesirable deterioration of Alaskan wildlife populations, including both predator and prey species."
Legislators also tried to re-enact wolf bounties but fortunately were stopped in that attempt. And they frustrated any attempts to better balance the Board of Game so that interests other than hunting and trapping would be represented.
Alaskans tried to send a message about such legislative overkill in 1996 through the initiative process. By a nearly 60-40 margin, the public voted to ban same-day airborne killing of wolves and aerial wolf control except in cases of "biological emergencies." A few years later, Alaskans voted a second time to ban the same-day airborne hunting of wolves, ultimately to no avail.
As bad as things were in the 1990s and early 2000s, the system got totally screwed up under Gov. Frank Murkowski. Over the past few years, no one has been able to counter the pro-ungulate, anti-predator-control philosophies of the Legislature and governor, and Murkowski's appointments to Fish and Game and the Board of Game. In short, the deck is stacked. Rather than being implemented as last-resort, biological-emergency policies, predator-control programs have been broadened so that wolf- and bear-kill programs are now a common practice on much of Alaska's state-owned land in order to "balance" increased human hunting pressures.
While ignoring Alaskans who voted twice to end the same-day airborne hunting of wolves, the powers that be have also increased bear hunting opportunities near McNeil River State Game Sanctuary despite overwhelming public testimony to protect the bears at a place that Fish and Game ironically touts as a "management jewel."
The Game Board serves an ever-narrower slice of Alaska's already small hunting population, while those who support wildlife watching are completely ignored. And it ignores the informed perspectives of respected wildlife scientists -- many of them Alaskans -- who openly question management strategies.
So, what to do? The most immediate answer is to elect a governor who will bring some balance back to wildlife management. I plead with the mainstream media to properly do their job and ask the candidates tough questions and not allow them to avoid the straight answers that we deserve. And I pray that voters pay attention not only to what the candidates are saying, but with whom they've been aligned over the years. We desperately need a governor who will restore balance -- and sanity -- to Alaska's wildlife management.
Bill Sherwonit is a nature writer who lives in Anchorage.