Wolf Song of Alaska News

Wildlife and Wildlands in Alaska (part three) - What Happened to Alaska’s Wildlife?

Alaska Voices / Anchorage Daily News / April 6, 2010

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Rudy Wittshirk

An Alaska wildlife enforcement officer who had grown up in Alaska once told me three things:
“In 1955,” he said, “you could go out on the last day of hunting season and take your pick of moose.”
Of the Alaska wildlife management system for which he worked: “The state does not want us to tell the public what really goes on out there [in the field].“

Then he added: “These hunters have no self-control.” And, as will be seen, neither does the State of Alaska.
I know from personal observation that the numbers of moose in Units 13 and 14 was once huge---although my first impression 27 years ago was that there actually should have been an even greater variety of more wildlife.

In any case, the Hatcher Pass area was, as recently as 20-30 years ago, rich with “herds” of many large, muscular, bold and beautiful cow moose. It was a breeding and nursery area---a calving grounds supreme. The huge cows and their enormous calves shook my cabin at night by rubbing against it. Winter moose eating birch and willows in my yard blocked the trail to my cabin and prevented me from bringing in supplies after a trip to town, necessitating breaking another trail from a different direction.

Overnight, moose tracks holed every freshly-groomed musher’s trail, every snow machine trail and every ski trail. There weren’t just many tracks by a few moose but multiple tracks from many moose. They were big moose with big hoof-prints---and they would dispute the trails!

Stands of willows were browsed down to look as if squads of groundskeepers had been turned loose with hedge-trimmers. Today, willows overgrow trails and must be cut back by Humans.
It was the same in other places. I just talked to a lady who reminded me of all the moose we used to see on the Palmer Hay Flats in years past. These are anecdotal observations---but the consensus is clear: There were huge numbers of moose in South Central in living memory of inhabitants.

Every once in a while the State goes after some serial-poacher, guide-gone-wrong, or some other spectacular and wanton waster of wildlife. But the full impact of illegally-taken wildlife has never seen the light of day. It is one of the things the wildlife enforcement officer spoke of when he said the State doesn’t want you to know what goes on out there. I personally saw a lot of poaching back when there were a lot of moose. Most of the incidents I observed took place right along the roadways for quick, convenient getaways---some right beneath “No Hunting“ signs! What went on off-road is anybody’s guess. However, just as the hunting declined with the decline of the game, so too did the incidents of poaching. I have no idea how much wildlife was or still is being taken illegally.

Every calving season my neighbors report chasing domestic dogs away from moose with calves. I can hear the hysterical yelping (you need to hear how crazy-wild domestic dogs can sound when they are chasing moose calves to believe it) but I am usually too far way to interfere.
Again, I know that domestic dogs take moose calves but have no idea how many.

Of course weather, changing climate, wild predators, poaching and domestic dogs were factors in wildlife declines. However, the systematic over-hunting of Alaska’s wildlife---facilitated by inadequate regulation of motorized access to Alaska’s wildlands, and “legalized“ by liberal interpretations of the State Constitution---resulted in much of the current scarcity of wild animals.

Moose were hunted out by Humans in the 1980s and 1990s. Sure, there were harsh Winters---and wolves and bears took their share of prey animals. But the motorized Human hunting never stopped---even after the game herds had obviously declined. Hunting couldn’t stop because it was a political juggernaut responding to the recreational needs of a growing pipeline-era population. “I came up here to hunt,” was the maxim of many of these newcomers.

The Anchorage Daily News Outdoors writers recommended that these new moose hunters go to the Hatcher Pass area for a good chance of killing an ungulate. And they came. And they killed. In the late 80s and early 90s severe Winters caused many moose to starve. But still the hunting went on.

Once there were gunshots from sunup to sundown. This past season (2009) I heard not a single moose gun---either being sighted in or discharged with purpose. A few moose-spotting aircraft hovered like vultures---but just to verify the land was near empty. Hunting traffic, once a constant rumble, was random. But the hunting continued, and woe to any surviving moose, caribou or bear that dared show itself.

Sure, there were wolves. Among the last individuals I saw was a huge old female scratching out a living by scavenging the remains of moose kills and, in Winter, digging up the protein-rich dog poop along a musher’s trail. With a lone fox following behind her---like an arctic fox shadowing a polar bear for scraps.

Bears once lived here in the Hatcher Pass region as well---big ones and many of them. There were good-sized grizzlies and huge black bears, some big as grizzlies. I used to regularly see black bear and grizzly tracks on spring snow as they emerged from their dens and wandered in search of food. I ran into bears along the road and in the mountains every single year until about five years ago. The signs became fewer and fewer---and the sizes of the bears and their prints shrank down---until, in the past two years, I saw barely any signs at all. Any bears sighted now are usually juveniles who meet an inevitable fate---a bullet somewhere along the road. As usual, multiple reports of the same bear making its way along the road---from garbage can to garbage can---give the false impression of “a lot of bears.” Just as multiple wolf tracks created by a few animals give the impression of many.

Even after the most intricate antler-size and configuration restrictions were mandated, bull moose began to get really scarce. Alaska’s politically-driven wildlife management system, however, saw nothing wrong with allowing cows to be shot. The “yield” must be “sustained.”

Here are my suspicions about all moose “cow hunts,” “cow permits” and “antler less hunts” in Alaska. Beware when Fish & Game says there are “too many” moose or “not enough” moose---in either case a killing will ensue. Killing is the State’s answer to everything.

When Fish & Game says they want to “adjust” the “bull to cow ratio”---this usually means too many bulls have already been shot.

Another justification for allowing over-hunting of moose: the population is “healthy.” But that may be only an illusion based on animals concentrated in one area where the “count“ is conducted and the numbers then “extrapolated“ to other areas where there may not be as many animals.

“We like to see two moose per square mile,” a State biologist told me.“ He explained how they counted a herd in a local area and extrapolated the numbers over a larger area and came up with more than two moose per square mile---therefore, hunting was allowed.

When Fish & Game says there are too many moose “per square mile,” I question the “science” because the methods of counting are inconsistent---that is, not scientifically uniform. I’m not saying the State is fudging numbers, but who can tell? The moose herd that was counted, and upon which the extrapolated numbers were based, could well have been the only moose for miles around. Indeed, while I don’t fly around, in my humble wanderings it has been my observation that moose tend to congregate in certain areas at certain times of year and especially when their numbers decline and especially when they are hunted hard.

Many of today’s cows were themselves prematurely forced to survive without their mothers because of the stupid “antler less“ hunts and “cow permits.” Sure, a moose calf has at least a possibility to survive a Winter without its mother---but just barely and without learning the skills needed to pass on to the next generation. And without the physical bulk and health to properly rear calves. Some of the cows today are barely the size of the yearling calves of a few decades ago. Such a depleted, stunted population is unable to recover from continued over-hunting.
I have watched many an orphaned calf attempting to survive on its own. After one cow hunt, I took a photo sequence of a pathetic orphan trying to “make friends” with my Human companion---the poor thing wandered aimlessly, didn’t know what to do or where to look for food.

Many of these orphaned calves actually make it through the Winter, but they act confused and never seem to gain the confidence necessary to successfully breed.

Today there is nothing left of the once great moose breeding herds in the Hatcher Pass area but a few scrawny, frightened, stressed-out cows---unable to rear calves properly.

And yes, a depleted population is unnaturally vulnerable to predation by wild predators which it had been able to withstand for millennia. In the old days I watched a limping but resolute cow moose kicking at a grizzly bear trying to get her calf. A fortuitous earthquake drove off the grizzly at least temporarily.

More recently, I interrupted two neighborhood dogs that had attacked and crippled a fairly good-sized calf while the immature mother had simply run off and disappeared. A wildlife enforcement officer came to dispatch the calf.

So, the moose hunts still go on and the herds just don‘t have any chance of ever coming back to even a small percentage of what they used to be. Those few scrawny cows around here indicate an over-hunted, over-killed, ”over-harvested” population.

“Game committee approves antler less moose hunt” (Anchorage Daily News, 2-26-10). “CONTROVERSY: Earlier the board had voted not to allow popular fall activity.”

“…despite objections by nearly half the members of the Mat-Su Fish and Game Advisory Committee” the permit hunt will be allowed this year.

“Fish and Game biologist Tony Kavalok said the hunt is one of the most popular in the state.” 9,000 to 10,000 applications for about 400 permits.

Objections to this permit hunt had nothing to do with killing off the breeding stock. It was to protest too many moose being taken for potlatch. This is how our wildlife is being managed. Not by science but as a competition and popularity contest! Sure, let’s kill off the breeding stock. Why not? It’s “popular!”

The most vicious responses I have ever received as a result of my Compass columns (Anchorage Daily News print edition)---on any subject---was a suggestion I made that off-road vehicles be properly regulated and licensed.

Many Alaskans are basically “ride-around outdoorsmen.” Hunters not only want to kill wildlife but they want to drive right up to their victims while sitting on their asses.

The failure to manage motor vehicles is one of the major factors behind the failure to successfully manage wildlife. And this failure to manage wildlife has caused the drastic decline of wildlife by “legal” hunting, trapping and sheer vehicular overrunning of habitat. In my opinion, Alaskans love their vehicles more than they love even the hunting of wild animals. But the activity of riding around in vehicles, combined with the killing of wildlife, has become the Alaska lifestyle supreme.

Wildlife is not supposed be managed by "emotion" or "politics." It’s supposed to be managed by “science.“ But area legislators sure put the emotional and political squeeze on Alaska's Board of Game to prevent so much as a “hearing” on the "mushrooming use of four-wheelers and...off-road vehicles" in Unit 13 (Anchorage Daily News, 11-10-97).

Back then, Sen. Loren Leman offered some sort of vague, unspecified "statewide solution" to the "perceived" off-road vehicle problem (“Off-Road Vehicle Use Needs Statewide, Not Piecemeal, Solution,” Opinion, 11-14-97). That was pure double-talk---he was, of course, proposing to let any off-road vehicle restrictions die a certain death in the Legislature. Noteworthy was his reference to the use of motorized vehicles as “traditional.” In other words, the great Alaskan “tradition” of Alaskans riding around on their asses looking for animals to shoot takes precedence over any “science,” any protection of wildlands and any protection of wildlife. That‘s why the great game herds are gone forever and will never make a comeback.

Even in 1997 knowledgeable hunters and outdoorsmen had already reported significant declines of animal and bird populations in large areas of Game Management Units 13 and 14. There were also enormous increases in the numbers of recreational vehicles---including a blizzard of snowmachines that gave wildlife no Winter respite.

But Sen. Leman merely counted moose and caribou in selected areas to judge the overall health of the ecosystem---much the same way Fish & Game conducts their wildlife population surveys when they are called upon to justify a hunt in already hunted-out areas.

Rep. Scott Ogan flattered city-dwellers as subsistence users when he referred to Unit 13 as "...more or less the meat market for Anchorage and Fairbanks." This was sheer recreational fantasy---the costs of four-wheelers deployed in Units 13 and 14 alone would have bought enough meat to feed the entire state! [Ogan and his ex-legislator pal, Ralph Seekins, are now at the forefront of killing bears with the use of helicopters, bait and snares---supposedly in order to make more moose for “subsistence” users: the very rural preference group they had so vehemently opposed while in office.]

Sen. Rick Halford said (in 1997), "There are a whole bunch of people who go up there every year with their kids..." This political-emotional response had absolutely nothing to do with sane wildlife or wildlands management. Rather, in response to a modest proposal to limit vehicular access for the purposes of protecting wildlife, Alaska politicians simply ganged up on Fish & Game. Rep. Beverly Masek had already stated that the legislature might overturn any limits on off-road vehicles. So much for “scientific” management. This is why we never hear a dissenting word from any of the wildlife biologists working for the State---their "professional" silence is the price for keeping their jobs.

Those who think that Fish & Game management is somehow above politics are deluding themselves with the Last Frontier mythology, romance and legends that have become the basis for game management. In order to secure votes and political support, Alaska’s wildlife was given up as an entitlement to recreational and commercial interests. Furthermore, over-harvesting was allowed to go on in order to maintain the reputation of the State itself as capable of producing "sustained," “abundant” wildlife. The more animals killed, the more hunters satisfied, the greater the reputation of the manly art of both hunting and managing wildlife.

The management of wildlife and wildlands in South Central was and is overtly, blatantly geared for the convenience of motorized users. Extrapolating from the South Central situation, I have no doubt that things are just as bad in other areas of the State.
Those vehicle-hunted moose and caribou bought many a vote for many an Alaska politician who urged Fish & Game to allow the motorized slaughter to continue long after it was too late and they were out of office. Alaska’s wildlife and access to its wildlands was and still is a political subsidy of commonly-owned wild animals and motorized access to commonly owned wild lands conferred by the State to a vocal minority and the commercial wildlife-killing industry it feeds.

In the eyes of inattentive and unobservant ride-around-outdoorsmen, the excessive wildlife slaughter facilitated by State politicians reinforced the official myth of abundant and endless supplies of game. And even as the “harvests” diminished and the regulations become more stringent, the hunts had to go on because to stop them would have meant an acknowledgment that the management system had been a failure, a disastrous squandering of our wildlife heritage. And if there is one thing politicians and Fish and Game bureaucrats will not do is admit failure.

Now, the same ride-around-fly-around-outdoorsmen who wiped out the game herds are presiding over their “recovery.” And these wildlife experts are now blaming wild predators for wiping out the game herds---while they proceed to wipe out the wild predators. Meanwhile, average Alaskans are so unfamiliar with the wildlife and wildlands they are just beginning to notice what is really happening.

The cover of Field & Stream magazine blares: “THE ULTIMATE SURVIVOR.” “LIFE IN THE WILD WITH ALASKA’S TOUGHEST TRAPPER” (“Quintessential Alaska trapper,” Anchorage Daily News, 2-9-10).

Of course the trapper in question, Marty Meirerotto, is a little embarrassed over the article about him. It’s media hype and he is honest enough to acknowledge it. Furthermore, the Daily News article was just more journalistic bull about the original piece of journalistic bull---feeding upon itself is how Alaska‘s reputation is made and maintained. Hype upon hype---breathless journalistic hype written about testosterone-drenched tabloid hype.
I grew up reading Field & Stream, Sports Afield and Argosy. And when I was older I read Alaska Sportsman magazine. To one extent or another, a lot of the stuff in those magazines was and is overblown, over-hyped, bull-wash.

Even the old Alaska Sportsman magazine was a puffed up advertisement for Alaska guides. It was all about “fair chase”---an illusion possible to believe back then because there were so many animals one didn‘t actually have to chase after and run them down with vehicles as hunters do today.

The old Alaska Sportsman magazine was just a way to glorify the guiding industry. Back then one could drive in or fly in, set up a swell hunting camp, and then actually walk out (on foot!) and shoot moose, bear, caribou, wolves or whatever. But the only reason this looked so “fair chase” was because it was a target-rich environment and some guide in an aircraft had already pre-spotted the likely quarry. There were once a lot of animals in certain parts of Alaska and with the help and transportation of guides one could be almost certain to bag the animals of choice. The fallacy, of course, was in continuing the killing of wildlife even after the populations began to plummet. And then, when the demand grew, the game needed to be more directly pursued with off-road vehicles and aircraft. The undeniable trend is now toward the further legalization of the use of aircraft and motor vehicles in the hunt.

These days, few even pretend to do “fair chase.“ It’s all about “hunting opportunities”---a chance, maybe, possibly, to kill something---if you can find it. And it is the sacred duty of the State to provide enough dead animals to keep the illusion of the Last Frontier alive.

An emotional ocean of unsatisfied male and she-male egos is a source of revenue, not only for overblown “sporting” magazines but for the lucrative gun, equipment and outfitting trades---especially the aircraft and motor vehicle trade. This wildlife-killing lobby knows how to work the political system. The State of Alaska responds well to these manly interests because the State also has a reputation to prop up: “The last great wilderness.” “The last frontier.” A place where one can still “live off the land.” Home of the grizzly bear, polar bear, moose, caribou and wolf---“abundant wildlife” to satisfy those with insatiable needs to drive up to, fly up to and kill wild animals. Come and get 'em!

Moose meat cannot be sold by the pound, but to the commercial hunting equipment and services trade they are worth far more as “hunting opportunities.” In other words, the value of the meat is now far exceeded by the value of the equipment and services employed to chase after that meat. At the height of the pipeline era hunting frenzy, it might have been only a slight exaggeration to say that the money spent and borrowed on vehicles and equipment resulted in many a “fifty-thousand dollar moose.” It was a money hunt.

Commercial business and industrial interests have a huge stake in Alaska’s wildlife. There are the earnings made by some trappers (usually meager and hard won); the commercial guiding businesses; the fly-in services; and the big businesses and industries of commercial vehicle and equipment manufacturing and sales and services. And let us not forget aircraft. Even helicopters are now allowed to be used in baiting and killing bears.

Anyone who doubts the commercial profits to be made by the wildlife-extraction industries just needs to visit a sporting goods store, a taxidermy shop, and especially an off-road vehicle dealership. Leaf through a Cabela’s or other outdoors catalogue to see the huge numbers of devices, tools, clothing and high tech goods constituting the equipment portion of the commercial wildlife-killing economy. These hunting supply outfits have all the feel of “soldier-of-fortune,” counterinsurgency, gadget warehouses.

And it’s not just the hunters and trappers who are obsessed with the equipment. The Alaska public seems overly-impressed by the high-tech gadgets and vehicles employed in the pursuit and killing of wildlife---as if that makes it somehow more understandable and acceptable, more legitimate and more, well, “Alaskan.” We are, after all, nothing like the macho, rugged image projected in the media. We are children of civilization and most of us are soft as grapes and wilderness-illiterate. The technology---the powerful equipment and the powerful guns---apparently compensates for our utter ignorance of Nature and our utter physical helplessness in the wild. So, not knowing any better, we tend to judge outdoorsmen by the size of their equipment. Gee, with that much horsepower he must know something! He owns a plane---he’s gotta be an expert on the stuff he flies over! He kills lots of wild animals---he must be a wildlife expert.
Rudy Wittshirk

[Note: The story of the decline of wildlife is just too big to cover in one segment and will continue in part four. Topics will include: How oil pipeline money, more than the pipeline itself, caused the destruction of wildlife. And: How the Alaska State Constitution was interpreted so wildlife could be “legally” over-harvested.]

Rudy Wittshirk is a writer who lives in Willow AK


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