Compass: Points of View from the Community / Anchorage Daily News
Vic Van Ballenberghe / December 20, 2006
About a year ago, a Superior Court judge ruled that the Game Board acted illegally in adopting five control programs and invalidated the governing regulations. The board quickly tried to fix the problem by reauthorizing the previous programs but also added some new areas, including 18,000 square miles near Tok.
Last month, a lawsuit challenging the reauthorized programs was filed by three conservation organizations. The suit deals mostly with narrow legal issues. But the underlying opposition is based on several other concerns. Why have so many Alaska residents and virtually all national conservation organizations strongly opposed the predator control programs now in place?
First, the programs are based on poor science. Advocates of control deny this, but many biologists agree that the data justifying control, the monitoring programs to track progress, and the evaluation procedures to determine success or failure are all deficient. One highly respected international organization of professional biologists twice sent letters of concern to Gov. Frank Murkowski and last June passed a resolution urging application of sound science. And similar concerns were raised recently in Anchorage at an international conference of wildlife biologists.
Second, many opponents can't understand why private pilots are still shooting wolves from the air after two ballot initiatives banning this practice both passed by wide margins. The Legislature and the Murkowski administration ignored the public will and found legal loopholes to continue this unpopular practice. Now, three well-known Alaska wildlife advocates have once again gathered more than enough signatures to place the issue on the ballot -- for the third time -- in 2008.
Third, predator control no longer applies just to wolves but now includes bears. Many Alaskans, hunters and nonhunters alike, view bears as valuable big game trophy animals. Treating them as predators and attempting to greatly reduce their numbers diminishes their status and may have long-term conservation impacts. Many people think that the Game Board went too far when it authorized the sale of bear parts and baiting of grizzly bears, practices long illegal here and with good reason.
Fourth, people question the necessity for control. For example, in McGrath a crisis was declared in 2000 when the moose population in that area was claimed to be only about 850 and insufficient to meet subsistence needs. A planning team found that 3,000-3,500 moose were necessary and recommended predator control. But in 2001, a thorough census indicated 3,600 moose and proved that earlier estimates were flawed. With the moose goal reached, why was wolf control approved? Simply because the board ignored the findings of the planning team and forged ahead with its predetermined predator control agenda.
Finally, many opponents think that the present programs are poor public policy. This large-scale effort now covers about 60,000 square miles of Alaska, the largest control program since statehood. Over 550 wolves have been shot to date, not counting hundreds more taken by liberalized hunting and trapping regulations. The goal in the five areas is to reduce wolf numbers by about 80 percent but monitoring is inadequate to prevent even further reduction. Nearly 70 private pilots are poised to begin shooting wolves this winter, often pursuing them to exhaustion in deep snow and shooting from the air.
Conservationists think that this paints a bad picture of Alaska, a state known for its richness of wildlife and wilderness, and raises serious questions about our stewardship of all natural resources. That is why they are so strongly opposed to the current predator control programs and continue to fight them in court. Control advocates, including Gov. Sarah Palin, vow to continue the programs, but time will tell if they will prevail in the courtroom. Even if they do, I believe they will ultimately fail in the court of public opinion.
Vic Van Ballenberghe of Anchorage is a wildlife biologist and former state Game Board member. He recently won the Alaska Conservation Foundation's Olaus Murie award for outstanding professional contributions.