A little more than two months before Alaskans will vote on a ballot initiative that would drastically change the state's predator control program, the state is ramping up its effort to "educate" the public on the issue.
Fairbanks' lone representative on the state Board of Game, Dick Burley, will be giving a presentation on the state's current predator control program at Noel Wien Library on Wednesday. The point of his talk, scheduled for 7 p.m., will not be to tell people how to vote on initiative, Burley said, but rather provide information that will help them make an educated decision.
"It's an effort to put out some information on current intensive management and predator control programs that the Board of Game has authorized and why they are being conducted," Burley said.
His and similar presentations by other game board members around the state were predicated by false information being sent out by special interest groups concerning the state's current predator control programs, Burley said. The game board requested and the Legislature approved a $400,000 appropriation to the Board of Game two years ago to help set the record straight about predator control in Alaska, he said.
"The board felt the department and the (Board of Game) has been negligent in trying to inform the public why predator control was being conducted and how effective it was," Burley said.
The game board and Department of Fish and Game is required by both the state's intensive management law and constitution to manage Alaska's wildlife for abundance, Burley said.
But the timing of the state's educational push - just a little more than two months prior to the Aug. 26 vote on a ballot initiative that, if passed, would basically gut the state's current predator control program - has some people questioning whether the state is campaigning more than educating.
"They can say what they want to say, but to us the timing seems a little fishy," said Joel Bennett of Juneau, one of the sponsors of the initiative.
The fact that game board members, not biologists from the Department of Fish and Game, are giving the talks, which have recently been held in Juneau, Anchorage and on the Kenai Peninsula, is a conflict, said Bennett, a former game board member.
"If it's supposed to be an even-handed, scientific presentation of the facts like they tout it as, why are non-scientists giving it?" Bennett said, referring to the presentations as "dog and pony shows." "That reinforces the idea this is a not-so-subtle way to endorse the game board's aggressive existing policy."
The initiative on the ballot would allow only personnel from the Department of Fish and Game to shoot wolves or grizzly bears from the air if a "biological emergency" was declared by the commissioner and no other solution other than aerial shooting was feasible.
Under the state's current program, the department issues permits to private pilot/gunner teams to shoot wolves from the air or land and shoot them in five different parts of the state, three of which are in the Interior. In the past four years, more than 750 wolves have been killed as a result of the citizen-driven program.
Several lawsuits have been filed against the Board of Game to halt the program but none of the lawsuits have succeeded.
Even though she is a proponent of predator control, Gov. Sarah Palin, in Fairbanks for a three-day energy crisis hearing, said on Friday the state is being careful not to cross what she called "a fine line" in influencing the election.
"We're not going to be out campaigning on a question that's going to be on the ballot," Palin said.
Department of Fish and Game commissioner Denby Lloyd said the department is being "very careful" to present only factual information to the public.
"We're trying to coach the (Board of Game) in best how not to cross the line of telling people how to vote on the election and at the same time providing information the legislature asked us to provide," he said.
Dick Bishop of Fairbanks, president of the Alaska Outdoor Council, which supports predator control, said he would like to see the department explain what will happen if the initiative is passed. He wrote a letter to Lloyd requesting the department do just that but the commissioner replied that state statutes prevent the department from influencing the outcome of an election using state funds.
"I think it's pretty obvious this ballot measure, if passed, will impair the obligation of the state and Board of Game to follow through and carry out an effective intensive management and predator control program," he said.
If the initiative passes, the department will not be able to carry out the same type of program now in place, Lloyd agreed. The department doesn't have the staff or money to fund a program that size and some of the areas where predator control is now being conducted would not be considered biological emergencies, he said. If passed, the initiative would create a conflict with the existing intensive management law and existing statutes would have to be re-written, he said.
"I think it's fairly apparent it would reduce the possibilities for active management," Lloyd said. "Whether that's detrimental or not is for the public to decide."
Jennifer Yuhas, chairperson for Alaskans for Professional Wildlife Management, the same coalition that helped defeat an initiative that would have banned bear baiting in Alaska four years ago and will spearhead the effort to defeat the predator control initiative in August, said Alaskans need to be educated about the issue to make an informed decision.
"We certainly believe more people should be educated on why we need this limited-used tactic in the limited areas we're using it," she said, noting that predator control is now being conducted on a tiny percentage of state land and that more than 60 percent of Alaska is off limits to predator control because it is federal land. "Our side is happy people are being educated. We believe (predator control) program stands on own merits."
The current predator control program is working, Lloyd said, evidenced by higher moose calf survival and increases in ungulate populations in some control areas. The department is working hard to gather information on the effects of predator control by monitoring predator and prey populations, he said.
"We are doing what we can to conduct these as responsible programs," Lloyd said.