A recent Empire headline read, "Wildlife Director Leaving Juneau." More to the point, scientific wildlife management seems to be leaving Alaska.
Last week, Alaska Department of Fish & Game commissioner Denby Lloyd asked Doug Larsen to step down as director of wildlife conservation, and named in his place assistant commissioner Corey Rossi. Though no official reason was given, the story is plain as a blood trail on snow: Larsen, a respected scientist with more than three decades of ADF&G experience, was summarily replaced by a man brought into the department by former Gov. Sarah Palin to direct part of ADF&G's predator control program.
Predator control, properly informed by rigorous science, can be a valuable wildlife management tool. Unfortunately, that specific, study-driven approach has been fading steadily in the rear view mirror, under the pressure of special interest groups who are bent on shaping wildlife management to their own ends.
With the appointment of Rossi, it's clear that science isn't driving this bus anymore. When he was first named as assistant commissioner in December 2008, ADF&G's own press release was conspicuously mum on the subject of his academic credentials. In fact, Rossi turns out to be a high school graduate who's taken a string of college courses from the Berryman Institute in Utah. Rossi doesn't even have a bachelor's degree in biology, let alone the advanced scientific credentials that characterized past directors. In fact, Rossi's school record wouldn't qualify him to be hired as a junior field biologist.
The sum of Rossi's bona fides (besides being a close friend of the Palin family) is that he worked for the USDA overseeing the control of undesired animals - as one ADF&G biologist put it, a "gopher choker."
While his past employment history may qualify him to snare bears with a baited bucket, the Director of Wildlife Conservation position demands a far wider range of scientific knowledge and experience.
Rossi's hire marks the point at which ADF&G has crossed a threshold that should alarm all Alaskans, as well as the scientific community. In this brave new world, a paralegal can head a law firm; a nurse can direct a team of surgeons, and a high school grad can direct a scientific agency. Though I'm sure some will come forward to defend Rossi, the point stands: he's simply not qualified for the position to which he was appointed. Of course, Rossi did not appoint himself. Commissioner Lloyd is ultimately responsible for this decision, which can only cast serious doubt on his leadership, and upon the credibility of ADF&G.
This credibility only becomes more strained when we come to the matter of Mr. Rossi's connection to the special interest group, Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife/Habitat. Following his initial appointment to ADF&G, the programs for which he lobbied at the behest of SFW/H (notably the wide-scale, virtually limitless killing of black bears in Unit 16B) quickly became ADF&G policy-a startling development, considering that SFW/H is not a scientific organization.
Founded by Utah businessman Don Peay, SFW/H makes no secret of its goals to re-shape wildlife management departments in lower 48 and Alaska through political pressure, in order to promote what they call "abundance-based management"- basically a euphemism for Maximum Sustained Yield, a wildlife Ponzi scheme that would make Bernie Madoff proud. According to SFW/H's philosophy, producing the greatest possible number of meat animals for human hunters is all that matters. All other wildlife issues and other user groups, consumptive or non, are subservient at best.
Though SFW/H claims to adhere to science, they mean only the science that supports their viewpoints and ends. As illustration of the very real pressure they bring to bear on the department, consider an email SFW/H spokesman Dane Crowley sent to Denby Lloyd (and cc'd to Rossi) on July 14, 2009, identifying career biologists by name that he wanted disciplined or fired-basically telling ADF&G its business in a very specific and vehement manner.
Lloyd's surprisingly cordial response (obtained through a public documents request) concludes with, "I look forward to continued cooperation between ADF&G and groups such as yours in meeting ... wildlife management objectives for Alaska."
When the lines between an extremist special interest group and a state agency become this blurred, something's deeply wrong. It's time for concerned Alaskans to demand a full official inquiry.
• Nick Jans is an Alaska writer and photographer.