Wolf Song of Alaska News

Ethics and Wolf Control

Editorial / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / August 17, 2008

The editors of The New York Times, in late winter 2004, offered a telling insight when writing about the ongoing battle over whether Alaska should be able to control predator numbers by shooting from aircraft.

"This isn't sport hunting - there's nothing sporting about deploying an air force to hunt animals," the Times observed.

Well said.

In fact, the statement exactly matches those offered by supporters of the state's aerial control option, as we approach yet another attempt to remove that option via the ballot box on Aug. 26.

The rest of the Times editorial went on to oppose aerial control, based on some incorrect assumptions.

But its common-sense analysis of this fundamental issue was sound.

A program to reduce predator populations, when led by a state government, is not sport hunting. It should not be judged as such, and that is one reason voters should defeat Ballot Measure No. 2 and allow the program to continue.

Of course, whenever a human shoots a wolf, the physical act of pulling the trigger does not vary. However, identical acts can be viewed as ethical or unethical based on nothing other than context.

For example, one person killing another could be described as a murder, a manslaughter, an act of war, an act of self-defense or a defense of others. The first is punishable by death itself. The latter is lauded as heroism. Whether the act is "ethical" arises entirely from context, not some fundamental characteristic of the act itself.

So this is the predator control context: The managers of Alaska's wildlife, appointed by Alaska's elected representatives, have determined that, in some parts of the state, the natural rise and fall of predator and prey populations can and should be modulated to provide a more consistent level of moose and caribou for human hunters.

Some say we should leave nature to balance. Such a balance is never static, though. Sometimes, the wolves are up; sometimes they're down. In addition, biologists have found that wolves sometimes can put a long-lasting cap on low moose populations. Removing some of the wolves can allow the moose population to recover more quickly, after which the wolf populations can grow as well. The idea is to smooth out the natural variation in the balance of nature, not tip it against the wolves permanently.

Biologists must monitor not only animal populations but also the habitat to make sure the whole effort isn't defeated by over-browsing, which could cause to a moose or caribou population crash. There's always room for better science, but biologists have solid assessment methods now.

The state Board of Game has authorized the state government to carry out an efficient program to accomplish all this. The state licenses individuals to shoot wolves from aircraft and immediately report any kills, so biologists can determine when the agreed-upon population goals have been met.

This is no more "hunting" than is rat control in New York City. That's not to suggest that wolves have no more value or that their populations are no more vulnerable than rats. It is to illustrate that, when a decision to control a wildlife population is made, for whatever reasons our democratic institutions deem worthy, it creates an entirely different ethical universe than that constructed for hunters.

Hunters, and their critics, have a myriad of personal codes.

Some hunters personally subscribe to practices that give their quarry more of a "fair" chance. Others observe that fairness ended with the invention of the gun.

Still, we all can see that most hunters support rules that often make it more difficult for them to hunt. This may be for ethical or other personal reasons, but such rules are more often just management tools to limit harvests.

Prohibiting another tool - aerial control - until an "irreversible decline" in caribou or moose populations is underway, as Ballot Measure No. 2 would do, is an unwise and potentially counter-productive policy in a state with a critical interest in sustained, healthy predator and prey populations.

When seeking to manage, efficiency is far more appropriate and universal ethical standard than elusive concepts such as "fair chase."

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