Wolf Song of Alaska News

Wildlife and Wildlands In Alaska (Part Four)  

Depend-ons, Constitution, Pipeline, Commercial Interests, Extraction Extremists

Rudy Wittshirk / Alaska Voices / Anchorage Daily News / April 14, 2010

The Alaska State Legislature has just rejected Governor Parnell’s nominee to the Game Board---Fairbanks fur tannery and wolf-trap factory owner, Al Barrette (“Parnell’s Game Board pick denied,” 4-10-10, Anchorage Daily News). But the Governor says he remains “committed to selecting nominees who will ensure that there is abundant wildlife for Alaska families who depend upon it.“
What do these code words mean? Which “families” actually “depend upon” wildlife? And exactly how do they “depend upon” wildlife?

Under current wildlife management policies, any efforts to seriously provide “abundant wildlife for Alaska families who depend upon it“ are not only destined to fail but fated to continue the decline of wildlife.

As long as everyone has, in principle, “equal” and “common” access to wildlife, it makes no sense to claim that we are managing wildlife just for those who “depend upon it,” since very few Alaskans actually depend on wild meat for their survival. As long as recreational hunters and trappers, the motorized hunting vehicle industry, the fur dealers and other commercial interests continue to promote “equal access” to wildlife, we cannot keep claiming we are spending huge amounts of money to kill wild predators simply in order to benefit a few families who must, in the end, compete in the field with more affluent, well-outfitted recreational and commercial interests. Wild animals are in decline because Humans are officially managing them based on irrational political promises.

Governor Parnell’s promise is an empty promise. The recreational hunters, trappers and the commercial wildlife-extraction interests and outdoor front organizations will never allow a true, needs-based distribution of wildlife. So, for every “subsistence” moose or caribou that goes to a family who actually “depends upon” the meat, many more go to families who don’t really need the meat. However, that majority of families who don’t need the meat are using those few families who do need the meat as their “depend on” poster-children in order to keep the “harvest” going for themselves. Whenever any suggestion is made to restrict vehicular access to protect wildlands; or whenever any science indicates a limit on the game harvest---the “depend-ons” are trotted out to show that Alaskan “families” would somehow starve. The “depend-ons” are, of course, also prominently featured in all the emotional appeals to justify the killing of wild predators. This greed-based management policy is ruining our wildlife and wildlands for the “common use” of everyone else by simply wiping it out---including those who supposedly “depend upon“ wild meat.

So how did we get into this mess?
Basically, we allowed the foxes to run the henhouse. Most hunters and trappers are decent people but they went along with the extremists because they were told, that if they didn’t, they would lose their “hunting rights“ and their “gun rights.”
Another factor is the generosity of spirit among many Alaskans. The Alaskan public, the Legislature, Governors, the Game Board, and Fish and Game have all been quite generous in giving away easy, motorized access to our wildlands in order to extract our wildlife populations.

As a result, the 22% or so of Alaskans who are licensed to hunt and trap have managed to wipe out large numbers of wildlife---and not exactly for the “common good” either. Alaska’s wildlife extraction policy has taken away the very essence of the land---its healthy balance of wildlife populations.

This degradation of Alaska’s wild heritage was accomplished while invoking such noble-sounding State Constitutional concepts as “equal access,” “common use,” “maximum sustained yield,” “maximum use” and “maximum benefit.” As a result, just about everyone was free to “harvest” whatever they could get with aircraft and motor vehicles; while the “depend-on” families were left to fight it out in the field with hordes of well-equipped recreational users.

A former Game Board member, Bob Bell, recently stated in a letter to the editor that the Alaska State Constitution mandates the current near-total domination of game management by those whose espouse policies of hunting and trapping wildlife to near-survival levels---facilitated by extreme predator elimination.
Well, it all depends on how one interprets the Constitution.

[Note: I have drawn information from "Citizen's Guide" to the Alaska Constitution (4th edition)---a good discussion of what the Constitution says and how the court(s) have interpreted it. The Alaska Legislative Affairs Agency has written the discussion. They provide a legal analysis of any legislation that goes to the legislature for consideration. Here is a link to “Citizen’s Guide” to the Alaska State Constitution: http://w3.legis.state.ak.us/docs/pdf/citizens_guide.pdf ]
The Alaska State Constitutional convention was convened in 1955. Back when there were still a lot of moose and most everything else. In the Mat-Su Valley this was the age of shooting one’s “winter moose” from the porch. Wildlife was taken for granted.

The delegates had a business attitude and were mostly concerned with the development of nonrenewable resources because that‘s where the really big money was. They convened at the Constitutional Convention in order to “develop” the resources of the state with a vision to expanding the Human population and creating a broader economic base.
However, the Constitutional delegates definitely urged that the principles of “conservation” must govern [all] resource management, renewable and non-renewable. They specifically acknowledged the disastrous loss of fish stocks due to unregulated commercial activities. At the time of the Constitutional convention, stocks of Alaska’s salmon had been reduced to a sad remnant of their past bounty by neglect of the sustained yield maxim.

The Constitutional delegates failed, however, to adequately spell out what they meant by “conservation,“ and with moose so easy to shoot in 1955 it was apparently not clear to them that wildlife could be wiped out just like the salmon runs. While the protection and “conservation” of wildlife was mentioned, production was emphasized. Even less attention was paid to the conservation and protection of wildlands---the source of all wildlife.

What the Constitutional delegates failed to foresee was the tremendous impact that the large Human population they so eagerly sought would have not only on wildlife habitat but on the numbers of animals that would be shot, trapped or driven away. For instance, what do their concepts of “sustained yield” and “common use” mean with a constantly growing Human population---a mostly urban, road-network population fully dependent upon industrial agriculture but with a sizeable number possessing the recreational need to “gear up” and kill wild animals?

The Constitutional delegates failed to foresee or account for the substantial commercial interests to benefit from the wildlife killing trade. Back then, more families actually did “depend upon” wild game for food; trapping was a way to make a few bucks; and guiding was the principle business that could be said to directly “depend upon” recreational hunting.

But there were already many privately-owned aircraft, commercial fly-in services and the air services and support industries. There have always been more aircraft owners per capita in Alaska than anywhere else. Today, of course, the entire on and off-road recreational “hunting” vehicle industry is huge. The political lobbies representing these extensive wildlife killing-based industries---a lobby composed of industrial, commercial and recreational interests---is well-organized and devoted, directly or indirectly, to the continued taking of wild animals for personal benefit and profit. Furthermore, the commercial interests don’t give a hoot about real families who actually “depend on” wild meat---for the simple reason that, by definition, people who really live off the land don’t have much money.

Certainly the State Constitution can be interpreted in different ways, but the failure to foresee the impacts of heavy “common use” on wildlife, and the failure to spell out and emphasize what was meant by “conservation,” left the animals at the mercy of thoughtless hunters, trappers and uncaring commercial interests; left State wildlife and wildlands management personnel without better conservation guidelines; and left the courts without the clear legal basis or directives to halt the ensuing slaughter. Moreover, the “equal access clauses” in the State Constitution allowed everyone to get in on the action.

The high-minded constitutional concept of “common use” seems to imply that anyone who wants to “use” wildlife has the right to do so---but there was no clear provision for those who have other, non-consumptive “uses“ for wildlife; which, ironically, now have more economic value than the consumptive killings. One wonders what the delegates would say about the mass slaughter of wild predators now taking place in order force Nature to manufacture a few more moose and caribou for the killing trade. One wonders what the delegates would say about the huge financial costs of predator control. Some figures peg the predator-controlled death of one wolf at a whopping $30,000 cost to the State.

These delegates surely loved Alaska and, I presume, loved the animals. But science-based wildlife management was just getting started back then. The delegates seemed to have had a limited understanding of Nature and left the door wide open for wildlife to be managed by narrow interests with a narrow view of Nature. The delegates did not anticipate the technology and proliferation of personal off-road vehicles, now a “tradition”---along with the older “traditions” of “road hunting“ and hunting with aircraft. Today, “hunting” is almost purely a motor sport---it‘s all about driving around or flying around looking for something to shoot. Is that what the Constitutional delegates really intended?

The Alaska State Constitution certainly put Alaska’s wildlife out there for the taking---with emphasis on its “use.” Those who interpreted the Constitution seized upon terms like “maximum sustained yield,” “maximum use” and “maximum benefit.” But the word “conservation”---which appeared numerous times in the State Constitution---is today merely mentioned in passing. And we don’t hear much about “fair chase” anymore. “Fair chase” has come to mean simply dismounting the vehicle just prior to shooting the animal that has been approached by use of that vehicle. Today, the policy trend is moving toward legalizing the shooting of wildlife from moving vehicles.

What we have in Alaska is a wildlife management system totally dominated by one special interest group, the so-called “consumptive users”---and controlled by the most extreme faction of that group. And it’s all “constitutional.”

A most problematic principle in the State Constitution is that of “maximum sustained yield.” In pursuit of that industrial-agriculture business goal, the most violated principle in wildlife management has to be the State Constitution’s constraint that “the annual harvest of a biological resource should not exceed the annual regeneration of that resource.”

Also, does “maximum use consistent with the public interest” have any other meaning than killing wildlife? Does “common use” refer only to “consumptive users?” Are not wildlife viewing, study and photography---even companionship and spiritual comfort and inspiration---also legitimate and honorable “uses” of wildlife? It seems that wildlife has been and is now more than ever being managed only for the killing.

Any suggestion of restraint (“conservation“) urged by the State Constitution in the management of wildlife is virtually ignored. State law defines maximum sustained yield as “the achievement and maintenance in perpetuity of a high level annual or regular periodic output of the various renewable resources of the state land consistent with multiple use” (AS 38.04.910). A qualifying phrase, “subject to preferences among beneficial uses,” signals recognition by the delegates that not all the demands made upon resources can be satisfied, and that prudent resource management based on modern conservation principles necessarily involves prioritizing competing uses. [per the “Citizens Guide.”]

Current wildlife managers use the word “abundance” abundantly, but the reality seems predicated on the principle of keeping wildlife populations at token levels---barely enough to justify one more season of hunting and trapping. It must now be evident that the most notable areas of Alaska where healthy wildlife populations still exist are areas where animals are not hunted and where motorized access is regulated or prohibited. That is not to say that all hunting and all motorized access should be banned---but rather, that these activities have been under-regulated according to the most liberal and generous possible interpretations of that part of the Alaska State Constitution which appeared, to some people at least, to mandate an almost universal entitlement to consumptive “use“---and ignoring those parts of the Constitution that mandated restraint with the word “conservation.“ The result is that the State has allowed wildlife to be taken until numbers have dropped to dangerously low levels. Moreover, there seems to be no consideration given to any other cause of these reduced wildlife populations than wild predators.

It should have been apparent, even in 1955, that Alaska’s wildlife was not some infinite resource from which everyone could take what they wanted. Among the writers of the State Constitution were many businessmen---certainly not enough who were familiar with the way Nature works. They must have seen the land more like an industrial factory, capable of pumping out “a sustained yield”---with enough choice cuts for everyone and perhaps, even some left over to be enjoyed in other ways.

The sum wildlife wisdom of these Constitutional Delegates was an emphasis on business, development and resources. And, given the usual Alaska living-off-the-land-there’s-enough-abundance-for-everybody mythology and romanticism, the results were inevitable. Managing wildlife and wildlands by myth, emotion and business principles guaranteed the “resource” would be degraded.

The Constitution was written broadly but has also been consistently interpreted too narrowly. The Constitution is being interpreted by organized groups of recreational users, commercial extractionists, and businessmen who profit from the wildlife extraction economy.

What this means is that too many hunters feel free to shoot, and too many trappers feel free to trap, every last possible animal----as long as the State has declared it to be “legal” and “constitutional.” The framers of the State Constitution did not seem to recognize that there are people in Alaska who would gleefully shoot the very last moose, caribou, bear, wolf or anything else.

The Alaska oil pipeline effectively cut the State in two and created many new road systems [Note: pressure is now on to expand vehicular access to lands along the Dalton Highway]. But mainly, it turned loose hordes of pipeline workers who were sufficiently paid to equip themselves with (or at least go into debt for) aircraft and fleets of motorized hunting vehicles which were then used to wipe out large numbers of moose, caribou and bears.
Okay, so caribou thrive in some pipeline areas (workers are constrained from shooting them there) but it was the pipeline money and the influx of pipeline-related workers that facilitated the motorized slaughter of what were once great game herds. And it was all in the name of “equal access,” “equal rights,” “common use,” and yes, unbelievably, “subsistence.” In Bush Alaska, people called it “subsistence.” Around Willow, people called it “feeding my family.” These consumptive excesses also indirectly affected many species of non-game birds and animals which depend especially on moose as a keystone species.
But the businessmen and the politicians saw that it was good---good for business and good for politics. Many Alaskans went into debt to buy fancy rigs for the purpose of hunting. As long as the moose lasted everyone was a “subsistence” hunter---no matter if they made a living off the oil industry and “subsisted“ on the products of industrial agriculture shipped in by sea, land or air.
It wasn’t just the pipeline workers who outfitted themselves with all kinds of vehicles and equipment and went hunting. It was also State workers, real estate workers, bankers, businessmen, doctors, lawyers, dentists, politicians and ordinary working people.

When there were no longer enough animals to satisfy most hunters, the State, under Governor Frank Murkowski, offered up the concept of the “hunting opportunity,” which said, in essence: There really are not enough game animals to justify many of these hunts---but if you get out there ahead of the other guy with your fast, powerful vehicles, you will have a “hunting opportunity” to kill whatever you can run down. The “hunting opportunity” is official recognition that wildlife must now be rooted out of its most remote refuges by the use of aircraft and motor vehicles.

Now, in lieu of all the missing wildlife it had allowed to be gunned down, the dream, the mirage of hunting was being peddled by the State. The liberal killing of large numbers of animals had now been replaced by a year-to-year farce---the illusion of a hunt. The vision of a hunt. The dream of a hunt. Zombie hunts.

Hunters are now saying, “Well, it’s the experience. It’s a chance to camp out with my kids and be with Nature.” And, if they happen to see one of the last surviving moose, caribou or bears in the area they will blast it and count themselves lucky. That, fellow Alaskans, is what we now call “a hunting opportunity.”
The pressure to kill wildlife is relentless. It’s the same with trapping. Remember the bizarre debate about trapping wolverines in Chugach State Park? There were no more than two-dozen left at most---some say only eight individuals---but trappers mused: Why can’t we have at them?

We have a small group of recreational trappers ready to scavenge any wolf that unwittingly steps out of the boundaries of Denali National Park---as if the State of Alaska owes these few trappers the right and to Hell with everyone else. These trappers, just like most wildlife extractionists, are scratching and clawing at the very last strongholds of untouched wildlife and will not stop. And the Game Board heartily approves!

Sure, many who killed off the great game herds, wiped out wildlife in general, and swarmed all over public lands with their vehicles were “good people.” Alaska wildlife was cleaned out by the cumulative activities of thousands of well-meaning, ordinary hunters and trappers who just kept on “harvesting” even though it was clear, at least to some, that the wildlife stocks were dwindling. It was okay because the State made it legal to do so. But the State lacks self control. It was up to the hunters and trappers and outdoor motorists to exercise self control---and they were not about to do so either.

That is why, as an outdoorsman myself, I can’t just blame the State government for the sad mismanagement of wildlife and wildlands in Alaska. The Alaska Fish and Game system is broken because there are enough of those good old Alaskan hunters and trappers who are themselves captivated by their need to kill wildlife with modern technology. And it is they---and the commercial interests who profit from their needs---who exert political pressure on the State to allow sustained over-harvesting.

I don’t mean to be down on hunters and trappers. Today, some people have stopped or cut down on their hunting and trapping because game is so scarce it’s not worth the effort anymore. Some of the more observant and ethical hunters have come to realize that they should not be over-hunting depleted populations---even if the State allows it. I would like to think there is a significant number of these thoughtful, observant and caring sportsmen.

However, there are significant numbers of people who will hunt down or trap out the very last member of a species in their areas, using the latest in high technology, and do so with great pride, sense of entitlement and self-righteousness.

Then we have our extreme hunting addicts. A trial judge who sentenced a serial poacher described him as “a hunting addict.” This, more than any other term, best describes the addictive need of some Humans to continue killing wild animals indefinitely and even long after it has become clear that the wild populations cannot withstand the sustained “harvest.”

Some will still hunt and trap just so the other guy doesn’t get the last of the game---I know this because hunters have told me so. If the State allows it, and it’s “legal,” they figure it might as well be them who kills the last animal.

When I told a neighbor 22 years ago that there were too few animals in this Hatcher Pass area to continue hunting at the same pace, he told me flatly and with great finality, that Fish and Game feels differently and has determined there is enough wildlife to hunt so he will hunt.

But then this avid hunter and trapper showed another side. He told me about written notices that the State had posted in the mountains to control snow machine traffic in the Peters-Purches Creeks area to lessen the Winter pressures on wildlife. He then informed me, with great pride and satisfaction, that someone had posted a sign over the State’s notices saying: “You’ve made your rules---now try to enforce them!”

In other words, if the State says it’s okay to hunt, trap or ride it is okay to do so. But when the State says that, in order to give wildlife a respite, you can’t ride your machine wherever you please, then you may feel free to disregard. This attitude is highly prevalent in Alaska. Many hunters, trappers and machine-riders hold the attitude that they can do as they damned well please---with or without the State’s consent. Unfortunately, the State of Alaska usually goes along with the wishes of the motorized wildlife-extractors.

Finally, it is my educated guess that a small minority of wildlife extractors take unusually large numbers of animals. For instance, our own former State Senator Scott Ogan had bragged that he killed thirty bears---and that was before his personal “predator control” crusade with the bait, snares and helicopters.

In Germany and Ireland, game such as deer and elk are managed for sustained yield. Each fall, game keepers, with the overall health of the herds in mind, carefully select bulls appropriate to be culled. Hunters then harvest these selected animals. This is clearly “sustained yield” and “maximum yield” in the sense that a certain number of animals are taken each year and the herds are allowed to maintain a uniform output from year to year. The difference is that the herds remain robust and healthy.

Obviously, this carefully micro-managed approach will not work in Alaska for any number of reasons. However, thirty years from now it will be the way of hunting if we continue to run down and harass wildlife populations at current rates.

There are those Alaskans who do not hunt or drive machinery into wilderness---or even enter wilderness at all. What need or motivation do they have to respect or allow Nature to continue in somewhat the same way it did before we got here? What is in it for them?

My sense is that the wildlands and wild creatures contain not just foods, clothing, shelter and medicines but a fundamental awareness lost to our own civilized existence, a primal satisfaction lost to our civilized existence, and an inherent happiness lost to our civilized existence. This is most evident in a healthy ecosystem with a wide variety of wildlife---something most Alaskans are not familiar with anymore. But, hey---that‘s just me! I have no desire to impose this view on anyone since it came to me by itself, on its own.

Rudy Wittshirk
[Note: I have received an unsubstantiated report---supposedly emanating from an “independent wolf biologist”---that the Chignik Lake wolves involved in the killing of a jogger had been “habituated.” According to this source, villagers had been luring the wolves closer to the village for easier killing and more convenient skinning.

The reason I pass this on is because it is the first plausible explanation---aside from the careless behavior of the victim---of a very unusual occurrence.)

Part Five in this series will deal with the inevitable consequence of a relentlessly mismanaged wildlife and wildlands system: ”What Does Alaska Get From Predator Control? The Hundred-Thousand-Dollar ‘Subsistence’ Moose.”

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