Suing the federal government to try to win the right to slaughter wolves on Unimak Island may rank as the worst decision yet made by Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell, the nice-guy successor to half-term, former Gov. Sarah Palin. Parnell is at the helm of the first administration to propose a wolf kill that is bad for all Alaskans no matter their PETA affiliation. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals lose in the short term; People for the Eating of Tasty Animals lose in the long term.
More on that in a minute. But first a couple of comments on what is really going on with this proposed wolf kill, and it's not biology. It's politics.
Parnell is in the process of trying to win for himself the job handed him when Sarahcuda decided she'd had enough in Juneau. The rap on Parnell when he took over for the failed vice-presidential candidate who didn't want to come home to swim in a little pond anymore was that he's too nice to be governor, as if there's something wrong with that.
Sarahacuda could be awfully nice, too; you betcha. But everyone agrees that the girl from Wasilla earned her 'Cuda nickname on the hardwood.
She was aggressive back in the day, and she is aggressive today. She now plays political hardball with the best of them. Since quitting as governor, she's become something of a right-wing James Carville armed with a pointed tongue plus a shield of victimhood. That shield won't work for Parnell. Well-off Whites guys can't play the victim card no matter what, and Parnell has never had the sharp tongue.
Just the opposite. Nineteen-term Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) tagged Parnell with the "Captain Zero" nickname back in 2008, and the label has stuck.
Parnell is trying to shake it by showing off his cojones with a series of assaults on the federales. It is de rigueur for 49th state politicians to do this by championing the Alaska little man against the big, bad Fed.
Enter the wolves and caribou of Unimak Island out there in the NeverNever Land of the real Alaska 650 miles southwest of the urban sprawl of Anchorage, where most Alaskans live, and even farther from the urban sprawl of Fairbanks, where the second-most Alaskans live.
Most of Unimak is in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. This makes most of the island U.S. government property. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal government overseer, thinks it has a certain say on what happens on federal government property.
A federal judge on Thursday in Anchorage agreed. He refused to grant the state's request for a temporary restraining order that would have stopped refuge staff from arresting any state employees who showed up to shoot wolves, but the judge said the state could press ahead with its suit if it wants. Judges are always willing to listen to "arguments,'' as lawyers call their legal opinions, because this is what judges do. Alaska Department of Fish and Game spokesman Bruce Bartley expects the state Department of Law to be back in court next week, but added that's all the state is going do.
Nobody's going rouge. Nobody's got the gumption to tell state gunners to start shooting wolves to really challenge the feds. Maybe that is because most of what is going on is for show.
Both the feds and the state agree that Unimak wolves are eating too many Unimak caribou. But this is what wolves do. This is the way things work in the wild. Wolves don't abide by seasons and bag limits.
The state contends the wolves are so out of control this time they could eliminate all the caribou on the island. The feds aren't so sure.
The state says it needs to immediately start shooting wolves from the air to save the caribou that might go extinct. The feds simply want to study the issue some more before deciding what to do. The Parnell administration has decided this is grounds for costly, already-time-consuming litigation aimed mainly at showing the new governor is willing to get tough with those awful feds.
If the governor really wanted to get tough with the awful feds, there would be better places. The state could, for instance, challenge the feds' authority to manage state caribou on Bureau of Land Management real estate in the Nelchina basin. The caribou-hunting permits the feds now hand out to anyone who moves to Glennallen regularly deprive longtime Alaskans of opportunities to hunt Nelchina caribou.
I'm one of them. I've now spent more than 35 years in the state. I can't get a federal Nelchina permit, but some young woman who arrives in Glennallen from Minneapolis to teach school can, even if she's never hunted in her life. And I am far from the only Alaskan in this situation. There are thousands like me.
The state could sue to try to change this, but that isn't going to happen because then we're smack back in the middle of the state's explosive subsistence issue, and no governor in 30 years has really wanted much of anything to do with that tar baby.
So Parnell has decided to make his play against federal management of wildlife elsewhere, and in a way that is so politically misguided for all Alaskans -- save maybe Parnell -- that it boggles the imagination.
The best thing for all Alaskans is for the Unimak situation to play out naturally.
If you're a treehugger, of course, this seems obvious. Avoiding wolf killing is a good thing always, right? OK, whatever. You're entitled to that view no matter how ecologically misguided.
If you're a hunter or a wildlife photographer or simply someone who likes to see a lot of big animals roaming the tundra and taiga of Alaska, you're hopefully looking at this situation a little differently. The caribou herd on the island once numbered 1,500 or more. It is now down to 300, only about 15 of which are bulls. And most of those bulls are old, making them more vulnerable to the 20 or 30 wolves on the island.
Contrary to popular misconceptions, wolves don't cull the weak. They cull mainly the young and the old. Nature is pretty much the opposite of civilization. There are no special considerations given elders or youth. They are simply seen as weaker and thus more vulnerable prey.
So it is possible the Unimak caribou herd could go extinct, which would be a good thing. Yes, you read that right.
In this case, extinction would be a good thing, a very good thing.
Because it would make the case for wolf management in Alaska. How long have Alaskans been forced to live with the "balance of nature" nonsense pushed by uneducated environmentalists? What better way to get free of it than for nature to demonstrate its lack of balance?
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has been presented with what could be the perfect opportunity to illustrate that humans do sometimes need to manage wolf numbers to preserve prey -- and the state's decision is to throw the opportunity away?
Yes, this experiment has been done before. But that was more than 40 years ago, and the situation was somewhat contrived. The state stocked two male and two female wolves on little, 45-square-mile Coronation Island in Southeast Alaska in 1960. By 1964, there were at least 13 wolves living there in one or two packs feasting on Sitka blacktail deer. Unfortunately, the wolves knew nothing about wildlife conservation.
Within two years, the deer were almost all eaten and wolves started starving to death. By 1968, there was only one wolf reported alive on the island. It, too, eventually died. Fish and Game has, in the past, tried to use Coronation as a case in point for wolf management, but critics point to the unique circumstances and argue that what happened there couldn't happen in a "natural situation."
And it hasn't.
The Mentasta Caribou Herd in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park east of Anchorage has looked to be struggling toward extinction for years due to wolf and bear predation, but it hangs on at a few hundred animals seemingly locked in an endless predator pit. This provides ammunition for those who say the state doesn't need to engage in the expensive and politically charged business of managing wolves. They argue this shows caribou won't go extinct and that nature will at some point correct the ecological imbalance, be it 10 years from now or 100 years from or longer.
Nobody ever says that about fisheries in Alaska, of course, but that's a different matter. It is said often about wildlife. A caribou extinction on Unimak Island could alter this thinking. Unimak is a 1,570-square-mile island so close to the Alaska mainland that on a map it looks more like part of the Alaska Peninsula than part of the chain of Aleutian Islands.
A caribou extinction on Unimak Island would be the real-world scenario the state of Alaska could use to demonstrate to Americans that as the late Gov. Wally Hickel once observed, "You can't just let nature run wild."
Americans need this illustration because most Americans would today prefer to let nature run wild.
Most Americans thinks "nature" is a synonym for "Eden." Nobody Outside really cares how nature works. People Outside are comfortable in congested cities running over critters with their automobiles and dreaming of an Eden-esque natural world where the animals run wild and free protected by the "balance of nature," instead of scrambling for their lives to avoid the wheels of the mechanical predators that prowl the acres and acres and acres of asphalt which, when you think about it, are nothing more than an oil spill firmed up and made to last hopefully forever.
These people are clueless. They need an object lesson in how nature really works. Unimak could be that lesson.
Let the caribou go extinct, Gov. Parnell. Save the money the state would spend on petrol for helos and shells for gunners -- not to mention the money going into the pockets of those lawyers in their three-piece suits -- and use it to fund a national educational campaign when the caribou are gone. The state will never get a better chance to sell the message about how nature works.
And if you really want to stick your fingers in the eyes of the feds, wait and let them propose killing wolves to save Unimak caribou, and then sue to stop them.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com .
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