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Help the McNeil Bear Sanctuary off linmits to hunting

Alaska's System of Wildlife Management is Broken

Letters / Anchorage Press / March 26, 2009

Our system of wildlife management is broken. Scratch that; "broken" isn't the right word. "Corrupted" is more like it, and never has such corruption been so blatant and detrimental to the future of our system of wildlife management as it is under the Palin administration.

Contrary to what many Alaskans believe, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game doesn't set hunting and trapping regulations, bag limits, seasons, or even institute various predator control programs. A seven-member Board of Game panel appointed by the governor and confirmed by the legislature determines those things. This is problematic for consistent and long-term prudent wildlife management strategies because partisan politics and gubernatorial elections often cause a pendulum-swing effect in how our wildlife is managed.

So we continually get a "stacking" of the Board of Game by various governors with individuals who will likely toe the party line on wildlife management issues, instead of a more well-rounded bi-partisan Board of Game that better represents the public at large and the interests of the wildlife they oversee. (Some Lower 48 states, recognizing the flaws in such a system, mandate a bipartisan makeup of wildlife boards, or have differing procedures on how members are chosen and nominated.)

This causes continual push-comes-to-shove extremism-vs.-extremism wildlife management whereby politics continually trumps biology and wildlife science. Generally this extremism centers around predator control-a "less predator control" philosophy versus a "more predator control" philosophy. We are now in the "more predator control" stage in terms of the current administration and Board of Game makeup, which in and of itself isn't odd or rare.

What are odd and rare however, are the extremes to which Governor Palin and the Board of Game are going in terms of expanded predator control of bears and the methods and means used in those control efforts-and how such control programs were pushed through via a corrupted process.

The Board of Game is supposed to give weight to the "analysis and recommendations" of ADFG biologists and managers regarding certain proposals before them. This can be a sticky wicket for both the board and the administration if they try to push things through that ADFG biologists and managers claim are not biologically sound or necessary. And up until now, this ability of the professional biologists and managers at ADFG to use real wildlife science and data and prudent management principles to either support or oppose a proposal has been our last real check and balance in a process that has become so politicized.

I say "up until now" because Governor Palin has done an end-around on this last check and balance, and this is where the final corruption of our system of wildlife management comes into play. Recognizing that the extreme predator control plans the governor and her allies wanted to put into play would never pass muster with ADFG biologists and managers, Palin simply stacked the ADFG leadership team.

She created a brand new position within ADFG leadership-"Assistant Deputy Commissioner," No. 3 in the chain of command-and appointed family friend Corey Rossi who is an advocate and board member of a radical new hunting organization in Alaska that is seeking to privatize predator control and legalize the snaring of bears and helicopter transport of "hunters" who participate in control efforts.

The No. 2 slot (Deputy Commissioner) had been vacant for some time and Governor Palin chose Patrick Valkenburg to fill it, a retired ADFG biologist and Alaska Outdoor Council board member who has been pushing to legalize the snaring of bears by the public as another method to harvest bears.

Immediately after these two men were appointed they told biologists and managers under their command to get on board with the new direction the governor wanted to take on bear control, even though many biologists strongly opposed bear snaring based on biological and other concerns.

So the fix was in, and lo and behold the Board of Game approved the snaring of both brown and black bears and the helicopter transport of hunters who participate in control programs, even though many hunters like myself, and biologists within ADFG (who were told to keep silent and not voice their concerns publicly) opposed such unnecessary and unsound extremism.

Down the line, the biggest loser in all this is the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the hardworking professionals within the department who just want to do objective science but can't speak out publicly about what is happening and how good-ol-boy Alaska politics has completely overtaken real wildlife biology and science. Morale within the department is very low. Many feel the department leadership sold out and sold them out as well, and that the reputation of the department has been irrevocably tarnished.

I have a letter from Governor Palin from early in her term stating that she would base decisions on wildlife management on "science." Sort of like her promise of an open and transparent administration. It sounded good at the time. Even I believed it. Now I know better.

-Mark Richards

Mark Richards is co-chair of Alaska Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

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