I'm delighted that the Board of Game recently reversed its grievous decision to allow brown bear hunting on state lands adjacent to McNeil River State Game Sanctuary. But after attending much of the board's recent meeting, I remain disheartened by its unbalanced makeup and exceedingly strong bias toward those who prefer to kill Alaska's wildlife -- often for "sport" -- rather than conserve it.
I must emphasize here that I fully support the harvest of wildlife for food; but I'm opposed to trophy hunting and recreational trapping, particularly in parklands. And I'm angered that the board will now allow hunters and trappers to "harvest" brown bears and wolverines in Anchorage's "backyard wilderness," Chugach State Park.
Though the brown bear hunt disturbs me (especially given increased opportunities elsewhere), I'm especially infuriated by the board's decision to permit wolverine trapping in the park, against the advice of Rick Sinnott, area biologist for the state.
In an e-mail, Sinnott told me he was disappointed by "the Board's apparent disregard for our main concern: that wolverines are already being overharvested in Unit 14C," which includes Anchorage and Chugach State Park. Wolverine trapping in the park, he says, "may increase the overharvest."
Using the best available survey techniques, Fish and Game staff has determined that some 17 wolverines inhabit Unit 14C, give or take a few. Between 2001 and 2005, trappers annually killed 2.6 wolverines on average, or 15 percent of the population. That number is worrisome, Sinnott notes, because wolverine experts advise a harvest rate of 5 to 10 percent.
Now the board has voted to open 14C's only wolverine "refugia," one that's been closed to wolverine trapping since 1973. It's also a place, Sinnott says, where "wolverines are one of the top viewing species, although very few are seen." On top of all that, traps used to take wolverines may end up harming or killing pet dogs.
Given all this, a reasonable person might ask how the board could approve wolverine trapping. Having missed the board's vote, I did just that. Board member Ted Spraker couldn't give me any good reason for ignoring Sinnott's expertise. He rationalized that local trappers and the Anchorage Fish and Game Committee had requested the "opportunity" and some evidence given by trappers suggested a healthy population.
It didn't matter that several other locals, including the area wildlife manager, opposed such trapping. And when one resident described the thrill of seeing a single wolverine in 30 years of exploring Chugach Park, board member Bob Bell interpreted that to mean wolverine trapping wouldn't harm anyone's wildlife-viewing experience since the animals are seen so rarely.
Amazingly, Bell also argued that wolverine trapping is appropriate in Chugach Park because it is a "management tool." His comments were so off base (especially given Sinnott's testimony) on this issue -- and others -- that I have to wonder what Gov. Sarah Palin was thinking when she reappointed him to the board.
Rather than bringing more balance to the board, Bell's addition has slanted it even further toward a sport-hunting and predator-control bias. Worse than that, he consistently seemed ignorant or displayed poor judgment during public testimony and board deliberations.
Sadly, no one officially representing Chugach State Park addressed any of the proposals affecting the park's wildlife populations. If superintendent Tom Harrison and Chugach's advisory board had expressed their concerns about wolverine trapping, that might have turned the vote around.
After the board meeting, Harrison told me he'd talked with Sinnott and agreed with his perspectives but "didn't have specific comments to offer" the board. He also agreed that he should have done so.
Both Chugach staff and the advisory board failed in their responsibilities. But the biggest failure, once more, is the Board of Game's. With rare exceptions (like McNeil's bears), it continues to show an inability to seriously consider other perspectives than its own or those of its chief allies.
Alaskans and the state's wildlife deserve better. I can only hope that Gov. Palin will show better judgment in future appointments to the Board of Game, so that balance and wisdom will someday prevail.
Nature writer and freelance journalist Bill Sherwonit is a frequent visitor to Chugach State Park and a former member of its citizens' advisory board.