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Wolf Song of Alaska News

There are Limits to Predator Control

My Turn / Juneau Empire / December 4, 2008

Vic Van Ballenberghe

The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner editorial "A Public Purpose?" (Nov. 17) argued that killing young wolf pups at dens was not reprehensible if it resulted in more caribou and moose for hunters. Such killing of pups at dens might ultimately serve a broader public purpose and critics should broaden their view.

As I read the editorial I wondered if the News-Miner considers off limits any method of killing predators to produce more game for hunters. We now allow practices that were prohibited for many years like pursuing wolves with snowmachines, shooting bear cubs, selling bear hides and skulls, and hunting same-day-airborne. What's next? Why not bring back poison, widely used by the feds during territorial days? Or allow private use of helicopters with fully automatic weapons. Perhaps we should dynamite traditional wolf dens used for decades.

Are there no limits? Alaska has strongly divided opinions on predator control. Some endorse the News-Miners' view that aerial shooting is just fine and we need to expand its use. Others think we already are way over the line with too many private pilots shooting too many wolves in too many areas. But can't we agree that there must be some common ground - some practices that most people oppose with good reason? Practices like using poison. Might those practices include denning? The editorial's claim that denning is good public policy is, to me, a very myopic view of a very controversial practice. Setting public policy entails more than the special interests of one group, namely hunters.

The editorial argues that killing wolf pups at dens is no different than killing dog pups by animal control officers or slaughtering cows. But wolf pups are wild animals and the legal and moral restraints on killing them are different. We "clear-cut" corn fields each year, but should we also clear-cut forests? We don't manage corn fields and forests the same way just because both grow plants. Nor do we "control" dogs and wolves the same way just because both are animals.

The editorial also asserts that our public officials given the task of predator control ensure that the killing is swift and efficient. Why, then, did the Game Board remove provisions in the predator control implementation plans that required the Fish and Game commissioner to conduct predator control safely, efficiently, and humanely? Can we assume it's now unsafe, inefficient and inhumane? If so, that's OK by Board standards.

The editorial concludes by claiming that those interested in wildlife viewing, as well as hunters, benefit when predator control results in more moose and caribou and ultimately more wolves. This assumes that predator control "works." It ignores the fact that many prior control programs failed to produce more game. And it ignores the fact that the current model guiding predator control provides for perpetual control. As moose and caribou increase, predator control continues lest predators increase and again reduce ungulates. Those interested in seeing or hearing wolves are out of luck, as are trappers wishing to harvest and sell wolf pelts.

Rather than chastising people like me to broaden our view, perhaps the News-Miner might seriously consider that there are limits to predator control, and some practices like using poison and killing pups at dens should be prohibited. Is that asking too much at a time when more than 100 private pilots are shooting hundreds of wolves over vast areas, or trappers can set unlimited numbers of wolf traps and snares? We can do the unpleasant job of controlling wolves when we must with tools other than poison and denning. If nothing else, can we agree on that?

* Vic Van Ballenberghe is a wildlife biologist and former Board of Game member who lives in Anchorage.

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