Wolf Song of Alaska News
A Rare, Clear View Of Fog-Shrouded Unimak Island: A Wildlife Management Learning Moment For Alaskans

AK Voices / Anchorage Daily News / June 3, 2010


Rudy Wittshirk 

Reader Comments:   http://community.adn.com/adn/node/151909

The June 3, 2010 decision by a federal judge to temporarily delay Alaska’s wolf-killing on Unimak Island will not resolve the greater issue of State-sponsored predator control. That is ultimately up to the Alaskan people, and the predator control controversy now occurring on Unimak Island gives the public a rare, clear and simplified view of how Alaska’s wildlife management system operates. It is a learning opportunity for Alaskans.

Unlike Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game and Board of Game, real wildlife scientists actually like to study animal populations on islands because of the controlled conditions. Things are more clear and simple on an island for obvious reasons. There are few or no arbitrary Game Management Units---with their straight line borders drawn on paper and which animals do not observe. Although some animals can get on and off an island by swimming, most animal populations, both predator and prey, are generally restricted to the island. This makes things easier to study.

To a lesser extent, this also holds true for Human predators --- such as the visiting population of guided trophy hunting businessmen---whose comings and goings can be more easily monitored, recorded and the effects of their activities more precisely evaluated in an island setting.

On Unimak Island, the State appears to have somewhat of a handle on the caribou herd and its extremely low ratio of bulls to cows. What the State doesn’t say --- and what few reporters have yet questioned them about --- is that this unprecedented lack of caribou bulls is clearly the result of trophy hunting. The island’s subsistence hunters took only about an eighth of the number of caribou during a similar period so this is clearly an island almost completely given over to trophy hunting.

Wildlife extraction interests such as the trophy guiding services now dominate Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game and the Board of Game---and it is their ideological party line that has been presented to the public as the official “science” of the State’s wildlife management system. Simply put, the State, controlled by commercial interests such as trophy guiding services, claims that wolves and bears wiped out the moose and caribou and therefore those animal predators must be wiped out for the herd animals to recover. That is, unless the bears have a commercial value. The State has completely ignored the fact that the bears on Unimak almost match the caribou in numbers. These bears must therefore present a far greater danger to caribou calves than the small handful of wolves on the island---but they are not being targeted for predator control because they are far more valuable as trophies to the guiding services.
Unimak Island now provides a simplified case study that everyone can understand --- summarized in the following, recent blogs:

Unimak Island’s Caribou: A Crisis Created by Fish and Game? (by Bill Sherwonit)


State Fish and Game Goes Mad On Unimak Island: Last Frontier Fantasies Die Hard (by myself)

Two things should jump right out at the reader of Bill Sherwonit’s piece. First, the State has allowed caribou bulls to be overhunted by the trophy guiding services. And second, the subsistence hunting for caribou on Unimak Island is insignificant.
The reader can now draw the logical conclusion that the State’s plan to kill wolves to save caribou calves on Unimak Island is not, as the State claims, to benefit “subsistence” users, but to benefit the trophy hunting guide services.

My contention is, if the State can’t get it right on an island---where things are most simple and clear---then why should we believe their claims that their predator control program all across the State is being done for the benefit of “subsistence” users? If the State of Alaska Department of Fish and Game and Board of Game can’t get it right in such a biologically simple and scientifically clear setting as Unimak Island---then how can we possibly believe they are getting it right in other, more complex, areas of Alaska?

In fact, according to a Mudflats blog, other areas of Alaska have also experienced unhealthy ratios of bulls to cows---involving moose. The blog also shows how Alaskans have long been subjected to similarly confused and misleading language and information by State managers---and deliberately so.

[here begins quote from Mudflats blog]
Because of declining hunter success throughout the 1990s, residents of McGrath were vocal about the need for aerial wolf control. They complained loudly and constantly that there weren’t enough legal moose to hunt. The most comprehensive moose population survey to date was done in the fall of 2001. Alaska Department of Fish & Game Biologists documented moose numbers and the bull/cow ratios within a 520 square mile area around McGrath known as the Experimental Micro Management Area or EMMA, as well as the rest of Game Management Unit (GMU) 19D East. The target ratio for a sustainable hunted population is 30 bulls/100 cows. Within the EMMA, that ratio fell to an unhealthy 18 bulls/100 cows. Outside EMMA and basically outside the range of lazy 4-wheeler hunters, that ratio was 44 bulls/100 cows-well above the healthy target. Here’s the kicker direct from the Alaska Department of Fish & Games official report “The low bull:cow ratio in this area (EMMA) results from an imbalance between hunting and recruitment. The bull:cow ratio in the remainder of GMU 19D East remains relatively high.”

In other words, the science from ADF&G’s own biologists contradicted the need for any predator control. Studies conducted for the McGrath Adaptive Management Team proved that over-hunting was the reason for the lack of moose in the area, not wolves. That data was buried and wolf control was implemented.

Last month [2008] Alaskans voted once again on Aerial Predator Control. The intent of the ballot initiative was simple enough; to prohibit the shooting of wolves and grizzly bears from aircraft. Lieutenant Governor Sean Parnell, overseer of elections, did his part to insure the proposition language was confusing enough to guarantee failure:
Ballot Measure 2 Bill Amending Same Day Airborne Shooting BALLOT LANGUAGE This bill amends current law banning same-day airborne shooting to include grizzly bears. The bill permits the Board of Game to allow a predator program for wolves and grizzly bears if the Commissioner of Fish and Game finds an emergency, where wolves or grizzly bears in an area are causing a decline in prey. Only employees of the Department of Fish and Game could take part in the program. Only the minimum number of wolves or grizzly bears needed to stop the emergency could be removed. Should this initiative become law?

Parnell was dragged into court several times for misrepresenting the intent of the initiative on the ballot. Many Alaskans were confused by the ballot language. My neighbor is a retired state engineer. He is a bright man and a conservationist. He voted no despite being an outspoken opponent of aerial wolf killing. Had I not known to vote yes, I would have voted no too. Now, aerial predator control proponents can disingenuously claim that Alaskans favor killing wolves and bears from planes as evidenced by the 2008 vote on Ballot Prop 2.

Governor Palin did her part to defeat the initiative as well. She approved the use of public money and ordered the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to publish a 26-page full color pamphlet called “Understanding Intensive Management and Predator Control in Alaska.” It circulated through newspapers statewide and was mailed to tens of thousands of Alaskans just days before the election. The pamphlet emphasized “how well the current system is working.” Jim Marcotte, Director of Support for the Board of Game, said the pamphlet was not meant to influence voters - Really? Spending public money to tell Alaskans that the Aerial Wolf Control Program is necessary to protect our moose and caribou populations just before a statewide election wasn’t an attempt to influence the outcome? The fear machine was in full force. The message was clear: wolves threaten hunters’ ability to put food on the table. But the truth was more about putting pelts on a wall. In addition to the pamphlet and mailers, the state paid for Board of Game members to fly all over Alaska to “educate” the public on the benefits of predator control-again just before the election. This entire predator control program is about turning Alaska into a wild game farm. In response to the allegation that she signed off on a “propaganda campaign to justify the state’s barbaric wolf slaughter from the skies,” Palin said, “My understanding is this program was funded by the Legislature to factually explain game management practices to Alaskans, and I don’t have a problem with that.” The total bill for the “education” was $400,000. Nearly the same amount of money she vetoed for high school drop out prevention…In June of this year, the ADF&G broke their own predator control regulations with the slaughter of 14 wolf pups near Point Moeller. Under the ADF&G Wolf Control Regulations (5AAC 92.110(i)), “Denning, the killing of wolf young in the den, is prohibited.” On site at the scene of the crime were Deputy ADF&G Commissioner for Wildlife, Ken Taylor, and The Director of ADF&G’s Division of Wildlife Conservation, Doug Larsen. Why were suits from Juneau involved in a routine field operation? Why do we pay them salaries to enforce laws they are either unaware of, or choose to break? Perhaps they knew they were breaking their own law and were there to support the cover-up and clean up crew. [here ends Mudflats blog quote]

The Alaska public should now be able to clearly see that the State’s predator control program has been and still is operating on false premises and false data to benefit special commercial wildlife extraction interests. The Alaska public should now be able to see that the wildlife management system of Alaska is based on the political influence of commercial interests and has absolutely nothing to do with biology.

The clear and simple picture provided by the Unimak Island fraud is an opportunity for the people to regain control of Alaska‘s Department Fish & Game and the Board of Game. Public control of predator control was taken away three times by political maneuvering. Shooting wolves from aircraft was turned down twice by ballot initiative. The State Legislature overturned those initiatives the moment their time limitations ran out. It didn’t matter because the State had begun killing predators anyway and calling it something else.

The third and last ballot initiative on aerial gunning was worded in such a convoluted manner that I, with an English-Journalism degree, had to stop and reread the thing several times to make sure I was voting the way I had intended.

The Alaska media has not generally helped public understanding of wildlife issues because there are no real nosey reporters actually questioning Governor Sean Parnell about the corruption-riddled wildlife management system in Alaska which he supports.
The final conclusion we can draw from the Unimak Island fiasco is that the repugnant mass-killing of wolves and bears is just the latest chapter in the State’s overall mismanagement of wildlife all across Alaska.

- Rudy Wittshirk is a writer who lives in Willow.

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