It’s been an eventful late winter and early spring (at least by the calendar) for those of us who care about the conservation and health of Alaska’s wildlife – all of it, that is, not just moose and caribou. An already bleak situation was getting even bleaker, given many of the Board of Game’s recent decisions, followed by the announcement that predator control advocate Corey Rossi would be running the Division of Wild Game Farming – oops, I mean Wildlife Conservation.
But those of us Alaskans who oppose the state’s ever-more extreme wildlife management priorities were able to celebrate a few notable happenings this past week. The first was the Alaska Legislature’s vote to reject trapper and fur tanner Al Barrette’s appointment to the Board of Game. This was no small thing. The last time that any BOG appointee got rejected, Tony Knowles was governor. Knowles had the audacity to try and broaden the board’s perspectives by appointing independent researchers and people who believe wildlife have value beyond the dinner table, wall mount, or fur-lined clothes. Several of his appointees were in fact hunters, but they also considered other wildlife activities to have merit, for instance wildlife watching and photography. Some had even previously served on the BOG, when it was a more moderate body. Yet Knowles’ appointees were routinely rejected by the legislature, often with disdain.
Watching “Gavel to Gavel” last week, I was impressed by the criticisms of Barrette leveled by a handful of legislators, particularly Sens. Hollis French, Donny Olson, Lyman Hoffman, and Bill Wielechowski. Together they provided ample reasons that Barrette’s actions and philosophies make him ill-suited to serve on an already narrow-minded and controversial BOG that has been a divisive force in Alaska’s wildlife politics. As French aptly explained, “The issue is one of balance. . . . [Barrette’s] views are not those of a centrist, not a consensus builder. He represents an extreme view. . . . I believe this individual will be a lightning rod. We don’t need that. Let’s take a step in the direction of the middle . . . of evenhandedness.” Wielechowski, meanwhile, gave example after example of Barrette’s extreme views – and actions – all of them gleaned from the recent BOG meeting.
Of course Barrette had his share of legislative supporters, mostly from the Mat-Su Valleys and Fairbanks, two hotbeds of mostly urban/suburban “sportsmen” (and women) who advocate ever-expanding predator control programs and “abundance management,” i.e., a greater abundance of moose and caribou and Dall sheep for human hunters at the expense of wolves and bears. Barrette’s supporters made it clear that this “outdoorsman’s outdoorsman” is respected as a “good family man,” a community leader, and a decent sort of fella who cares about Alaska. But none of them could explain why he’s qualified to serve on the BOG.
In a bi-partisan vote of legislators from both urban and rural Alaska, the combined House and Senate voted Barrette down, 31-27. It can be argued as to whether that was a small or large victory for those of us who seek more balance in the management of Alaska’s wildlife, but there’s no question it was significant. So thanks to those legislators who stepped up and through their votes said the BOG’s perspective needs to be broadened, not narrowed.
Thanks also to the National Park Service, much maligned here in Alaska. The Park Service and the feds in general were treated pretty rudely at the recent BOG meeting, but that’s nothing new. To its credit, the NPS took some strong stands, both in supporting an expansion of the Denali wolf buffer and making it clear that certain types of hunting allowable on state lands are not appropriate on federal park and preserve lands. As BOG chairman Cliff Judkins pointedly noted at the February-March meeting, “boundaries are boundaries” and “we need boundaries” when adjoining lands are managed by government agencies with differing mandates and regulations. Nice to see Judkins’ stance turned back on the board – and to see the Park Service stand up to the state on wildlife management issues, something it’s long been too hesitant to do, for political reasons.
Now the Park Service has followed up on its earlier testimony and this week acted to prohibit the killing of black bear sows and/or their cubs at den sites in Denali and Gates of the Arctic National Preserves, an action made necessary by new state regulations that affect both units. Neither will artificial lights be allowed in those places to kill black bears in dens. NPS officials agree their position – and ban – will have little impact on bear hunters, because there’s little or no evidence such hunting takes place in the preserves. Still, it’s important to make it clear that no such practices are allowed there, no matter what the state allows on its neighboring lands. The BOG opened a new window of opportunity, the NPS appropriately closed it.
The Park Service also put a temporary halt to the killing of wolves in Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve under state regulations, while allowing qualified rural residents to continue harvesting wolves in the preserve under federal subsistence hunting and trapping regulations. It’s absolutely the right call, after state-run predator control activities – including the killing of two radio-collared wolves by Fish and Game employees outside the preserve – contributed to an unusually high decline in Yukon-Charley’s wolf population this year. The Park Service stressed this is a temporary measure that will end later this year.
The BOG and Fish and Game have demeaned, ignored, and in some cases bullied national park officials for too many years. Many of us who’ve followed Alaska’s wildlife politics salute a new and more vigorous stance by the NPS. I for one hope it keeps up.
Finally, thanks to fellow Alaska Voice Rudy Wittshirk for his thoughtful and provocative series of postings, “Wildlife and Wildlands in Alaska.” I don’t necessarily agree with all his interpretations and conclusions, but Rudy has clearly given these matters lots of thought and he sheds some much-needed light on issues that have been largely ignored, to the detriment of both wildlands and wildlife. Keep at it, Rudy.
Like Wittshirk, I wonder what Gov. Parnell is going to do, now that the legislature has rejected Barrette. What does Parnell mean, that he’s “committed to selecting nominees who will ensure that there is abundant wildlife for Alaska families who depend upon it.”
“What,” Rudy asks, “do these code words mean? Which ‘families’ actually ‘depend upon’ wildlife? And exactly how do they ‘depend upon’ wildlife?” Good questions. Here’s another. Many of us Alaskans depend on wolves and bears to enrich our lives while those animals are still breathing and roaming Alaska’s wildlands. Does this mean Parnell will consider our needs when making his next appointment to the Board of Game?
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is the author of 12 books; his most recent is Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska's Arctic Wilderness, published by the University of Alaska Press.