Predator control is one of the most controversial, high-profile issues in Alaska. It's been front-page news for decades whenever wolves are slated for aerial shooting, or large numbers of bears are targeted for elimination. It has been in the courts and on the ballot numerous times without resolution.
Now, bills in the Legislature are being debated that would drastically alter the predator control landscape, but few citizens are paying attention.
House Bill 256 and its Senate counterpart, SB 176, were introduced at the request of the Governor, who has clearly sided with predator control advocates.
These include the Alaska Outdoor Council, an influential lobbying organization that has many legislators in its back pocket. Predator control and lots of it is the council's holy grail, and many legislators hear the message loud and clear.
HB 256 and SB 176 are billed as simplifying existing laws that guide the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Board of Game when it adopts predator control programs. Legislative committees were told that it would merely make the laws more workable and delete unnecessary language.
But these bills do far more than that. They delete virtually all the board's guidelines found in existing laws and give the board free rein to control predators as it pleases.
Gone is the provision that predator control applies only to depleted moose and caribou populations.
Gone is the provision that control must be effective, appropriate and in the best interest of subsistence users.
Do you think game management plans with predator control provisions are wise? Sorry, they're now gone. Do you think that before the board adopts control programs it should determine that predators are causing problems and control programs are the solution? You guessed it. That's gone too.
These important guidelines were placed in the laws by past legislatures after much debate and careful consideration. They have guided the Game Board since 1994.
Now, they may be gone and what will replace them? How about the meaningless requirement that the board must only consider predator control to be "conducive" to solving predation problems? What does that mean?
It's not that the board has had any problems in recent years in adopting predator control. We currently have five control programs from Aniak to Tok covering nearly 60,000 square miles, the largest control effort since statehood. So far, nearly 700 wolves have been shot by private hunters in airplanes. Several hundred more are targeted this winter.
So what is the real reason for these bills? Legislative committees were told that it is to "bullet proof" the Game Board against lawsuits challenging predator control. The board is sick and tired of those pesky suits that aim to enforce minimal guidelines - proven standards designed to do predator control right.
Aren't legal remedies part of the citizen oversight process? Wouldn't any regulatory board love to be bullet proof? Do we want to grant these boards overly broad authority?
As if this isn't bad enough, there's another bill pending, House Bill 348, that would make game animals state assets that cannot be allocated by ballot initiatives.
You may recall that in 1996 and 2000, voters passed initiatives to ban shooting of wolves with airplanes. But after two years both initiatives were nullified by the Legislature. Now, about 56,000 signatures have been gathered to put the same issue back on the ballot next August.
This motivated the predator control advocates to get rid of those annoying initiatives once and for all by sponsoring HB 348.
They claim the wolf-shooting initiatives are ballot box biology, but in reality they are more about policy than biology. Alaska's constitution provides for ballot initiatives to establish policies through grassroots action. Let's not let a narrow special-interest group compromise that important right.
These bills should be stopped. They are the latest in a long series of efforts to force predator control actions on an unwilling public.
As well as hearing the Outdoor Council's message, the Legislature must also hear that most Alaskans oppose further efforts to repeal Game Board guidelines. And we surely won't give up our right to vote on important wildlife policy issues.
* Vic Van Ballenberghe is a wildlife biologist who was appointed to the Alaska Game Board three times between 1985 and 2002. He is a resident of Anchorage.