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Help the McNeil Bear Sanctuary off linmits to hunting

Wildlife Politics Trump Conservation, Again

Bill Sherwonit / Talk of the Tundra / Alaska Dispatch / March 6, 2009

Alaska Board of Game member Bob Bell keeps insisting "We do what's best for the resource, first." What a bunch of baloney. Bob Bell and his colleagues on the Alaska Board of Game were given a wonderful opportunity this week to demonstrate that they truly are first and foremost dedicated to "what's best" for the health and well-being of "the resource" - that, is Alaska's wildlife.

Yet once again, the BOG instead showed that politics too often trumps wildlife conservation. Or common sense.

As widely reported in Anchorage media, the Board this week did indeed restore protections to the wolverines that inhabit Chugach State Park. But that was a no-brainer, since its members screwed up badly in 2007 by allowing the trapping of wolverine against the advice of local wildlife manager Rick Sinnott. That decision provoked a firestorm of local protest. It also motivated the Department of Fish and Game to conduct a new, groundbreaking survey of wolverines in Chugach Park.

Tuesday afternoon, Sinnott and Fish and Game's statistics guru, Earl Becker, walked the BOG through the department's 2008 aerial survey and also carefully explained their interpretation of the data accumulated by that survey.

It's not my purpose here to get into the details of the study, but I must emphasize that Becker and Sinnott's presentation was the sort of clear, methodical explanation that even a non-professional could easily follow. In fact it was among the clearest and most engaging reports I've witnessed in more than two decades of attending BOG meetings.

Among other things, Becker emphasized that this study produced "the most precise wolverine estimate in Alaska history." And, to his knowledge, it produced the second-most precise estimate done anywhere in the world. In short, this was a top-of-the-line, world-class effort, something the state should be proud of.

If Becker's comments didn't make a big enough impression, Sinnott added that the survey was "far more comprehensive than any moose survey we've ever done."

You would think such statements would get the Board's attention. But either its members were sleeping or casting their attention elsewhere. Because they seemed to completely miss Sinnott's bottom-line recommendation.

"Even if Chugach State Park is restored as a [wolverine] refugium," Sinnott urged, "we strongly recommend that the [trapping] season be left as it is" on Unit 14C lands that surround the park and which remain open to trapping.

In essence, Sinnott was asking the Board to keep the shorter Dec. 15-Jan. 31 wolverine-trapping season that's been in effect since 2007 (part of that year's Chugach Park "compromise" vote), rather than return it to the earlier, and considerably longer, Nov. 10-Jan. 31 season. His reasoning was both simple and clear: the available evidence suggests that wolverines in 14C are likely being overharvested. The data also shows that a high percentage of female wolverines are trapped early in the season. Switching back to an earlier start would put more female wolverines - and the regional population - at greater risk.

In short, Sinnott explained, Unit 14C's wolverine population "is at a tipping point. It's at risk of overharvest."

He couldn't have been any clearer on this point.

In theory, the BOG will do everything possible to prevent a species from overkill. In fact that is one of its mandates, as well as an excuse for predator control. Yet in the case of 14C wolverines, the Board blithely ignored Sinnott's recommendations. What's even more startling is that members didn't even discuss the merits of keeping the shorter trapping season.

Instead, the Board simply reinstated the ban on wolverine trapping in Chugach State Park; to its credit, it also banned the larger conibear-style traps that have occasionally caught and harmed dogs in Chugach. But it also lengthened the trapping season in parts of 14C outside Chugach State Park.

I was amazed. Had they been listening to the same presentation at me?

Hey, I wanted to shout, have any of you been paying attention?

It turns out that Sinnott, too, was amazed. But he was also much calmer and more philosophical about the Board's dismissal of his concerns. "You kind of get used to it," he explained with a half-smile and shrug. Board members "tend to jump on what we [biologists] say if it supports their own position; if not, they're more likely to ignore it.  Sometimes it seems they pay more attention to the public than to us. They're human like everybody else."

Instead of discussing Sinnott's conservation concerns, Bob Bell and Ted Spraker defended their own positions, while taking swipes at the troublemakers who caused the uproar over their decision to allow Chugach wolverine trapping in the first place.

In a self-serving comment, Bell opined, "I think this issue was blown way out of proportion. We're solving a problem that shouldn't have been a problem."

On the latter I agree, but not in the way Bell meant it. He, more than anyone, pushed for wolverine trapping in Chugach State Park. And he has stubbornly refused to admit his mistake, instead blaming everyone else for the resulting "problem." It's hard to say whether he's ignorant, ill informed, or in self-denial on these matters.

I later asked both Bell and Spraker to explain why they ignored Sinnott's strongly worded recommendation to keep 14C's wolverine-trapping season shorter, in order to protect females. Spraker essentially said the sample size of the 2008 study is too small to be reliable. No matter that wolverine populations are small or that it's the only available sample there is. In his opinion, wolverines are doing fine and that's that.

Bell, meanwhile, said he neither disagrees with the survey, nor the data, nor Sinnott's interpretation, yet he somehow believes "there is no conservation concern. You can interpret the data either way."

Spoken like the true politician that he is.

Yet Bell's admission, joined with Sinnott's earlier comments, gives a valuable window into the state's management of wildlife. In most instances Board members can interpret the data just about any damn way they want to. All the talk about using the best available science is largely smoke and mirrors. You take the surveys and other data and fit them to your own political agenda. This is especially true when it comes to predator control, another story in itself.

Those who closely observe Board deliberations already know these truths, but the larger public seems unaware. Or maybe the public doesn't really care. That too often seems to be the case.

One final piece of the wolverine puzzle. Two different people confirmed that the reinstatement of Chugach's wolverine-trapping ban was "a done deal" agreed upon by the Board of Game, Department of Fish and Game, and Department of Natural Resources (which manages state parks) long before this week's meeting. Everyone had agreed that things would go back to the way they were, prior to the Board's 2007 vote.

So really it didn't matter what Becker or Sinnott reported to the BOG. Whether or not trappers might be killing too many wolverines throughout Unit 14C, the important thing was to deal with Chugach's wolverines and move on.

Spraker himself said as much to me: "In this case we really weren't looking at the biology. This was a social issue."

Even as the Board appeased the Anchorage rabble that raised such a fuss about wolverine trapping in Chugach State Park, it stubbornly refused to consider the larger question of whether wolverine are being overharvested in the larger region.

I was especially surprised by Spraker's take on the issue. A long-time state biologist, he is arguably the most perceptive member of the Board. But his bottom line seemed to be that "everyone has won and lost" something in this debate. And that's that.

Sadly, wolverines seem to be losing the most. But that's politics, Alaska style.

©2009 by Bill Sherwonit

Bill Sherwonit frequently writes about Alaska's wildlife politics. His newest book is "Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey," published by the University of Alaska Press.

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