Wolf Song of Alaska News

Political Science at Alaska Fish & Game

Craig Medred / Alaska Dispatch / December 21, 2010



In the beginning, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game was born of science. In the end, it has become more and more about politics. The agency that stopped federal efforts to eradicate wolves in Alaska, because the science didn't support it, has become the agency leading a fight against listing the polar bear as an endangered species even though the consensus of state wildlife biologists is that the bears clearly qualify for listing.
"It is a very sad state of affairs," said former state biologist John Schoen. "As alumni of an organization I was once very proud of, Fish and Game is, more and more over the past years, being managed under a political ideology, not science."

Schoen is by no means alone in that view. It is echoed by many former Fish and Game employees and quietly voiced by a fair number who still labor within the agency. Among the latter, there is now fear their jobs could be in danger if they say anything publicly. How, some wonder, has this fate befallen an organization that was supposed to be largely free of politics?

Even before Alaska became a state in 1959, the Alaska Legislature wrote laws intended to isolate Fish and Game from politics. Instead of rolling its responsibilities into a broad-based Department of Natural Resources that govern mining, forestry, oil and gas exploration, parks and more, as many states do, the authors of Alaska's Constitution called for an agency devoted to nothing but fish and wildlife, with a constitutional mandate to focus on the science needed to manage resources on a sustained yield basis.

To try to maintain the scientific focus within the agency, the Legislature set up a special regulatory Board to do the political dirty work of allocating resources between highly-competitive user groups in the 49th state. The Joint Board of Fisheries and Game, along with a Board-picked commissioner, were supposed to insulate the scientists from politics. The governor was left with the authority to fire a commissioner who went too far, but the Board and the Legislature were given unprecedented powers to control the process. The Board was to put together the list of commissioner candidates, from which a governor was to select one to be approved by the Legislature. Alaska's early governors usually left the Board alone to make its recommendations, and then picked from the Board's list.

Flash forward 50 years, though, and a lot has changed. Gov. Sean Parnell this year flipped the process of picking a commissioner on its head and handed the now Joint Boards of Fish and Game his pick without waiting for them to provide "a list of qualified persons" as statutorily mandated. And Parnell's pick is not a biologist trained in fisheries or wildlife management, or a scientific researcher. His pick is a former fisheries aide in the governor's office with a bachelor's degree in education and a background as an advocate for commercial fishing interests.

As Campbell sees it, the way to do that is to push the science as it has always been pushed. "We have a cadre of biologists, and they do a lot of good work." She sees her role as an advocate for what they do best. "I have a lot of experience in policy," she said, and adds that she's taking over a department with a very capable staff that can help her with the tasks that are new. She is young, enthusiastic and seemingly well aware of her relative lack of experience.Those who know now-acting commissioner Cora Campbell praise her as smart and hardworking, but even some of her backers wonder how the Department of Fish and Game -- an agency that finds itself regularly under fire from commercial fishermen, anglers, wolf lovers, hunters, bird watchers and who knows who else -- can continue to function as a respected scientific organization as its leadership shifts steadily away from science toward politics.

"I know there has been some discussion of that issue," Campbell said response to criticism about her inexperience with wildlife management. But, she said she believes that in some ways what she is doing as Fish and Game commissioner is the same as what she was doing as an adviser to Gov. Sean Parnell. "You really are working on the same issues," Campbell said. "I've been doing this stuff."

The problem is that "this stuff" might be problematic. At a time when other states have been trying to depoliticize fish and wildlife issues, said Kevin Delaney, a former director of the Division of Sport Fish, Alaska is going the opposite direction in putting in charge someone who has been immersed for years in politics. Biologists both in and outside the department often use the word "demoralizing" to describe this trend.

Schoen is a former research biologist who conducted pioneering studies on Sitka black-tail deer and old-growth forest in Southeast Alaska. He later helped devise a plan for maximizing timber harvests in the Tongass National Forest while preserving maximum wildlife habitat, a plan the state tried unsuccessfully to sell to the U.S. Forest Service. Schoen went on from there to conduct grizzly bear research for the agency before finally leaving to become the chief scientist for Audubon Alaska. He continues to work there part time, and he carries the baggage of someone working for an environmental organization.

Outgoing Deputy Commissioner of Fish and Game Pat Valkenberg might be considered Schoen's ideological opposite in the world of wildlife management. Valkenberg is an advocate of what the state calls "intensive management." He championed the idea of manipulating predator numbers by killing wolves and bears to maximize the number of prey, primarily moose and caribou, in Alaska. He is a guy a lot of environmentalists detest. But on the subject of where Fish and Game has gone over the last 20 years and where it is headed, Valkenberg echoes Schoen.

"Our research program is a shadow of its former self," he said. Over the years, job slots once filled by wildlife researchers have been shifted to employ publications specialists, computer programmers, geographic information system (GIS) specialists and others, Valkenberg added, in the process draining the agency of what it needs most: better information with which to fine-tune management of fish and wildlife resources and to utilize as the federal government seems to edge toward a full-scale takeover of fish and wildlife management in the 49th state.
"The biggest problem with appointing someone like Cora is credibility," said Valkenberg, who became a deputy commissioner after Parnell took over the governor's office from Sarah Palin. "There is no earned credibility there."

Given time and hard work, many agree, Campbell might gain that credibility, but they question whether there is time for this in an agency that has been losing top professional staff and expertise to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and companion federal agencies for years now. The exodus runs through all divisions.
Susitna Valley area sport fisheries biologist Dave Rutz, a 2005 winner of Fish & Game's "Meritorious Service Award," recently left what he considered his "dream job" to go to work for the feds. The benefits that went with the federal job were much better, and the pay at the entry level in federal government started out higher than where Rutz had topped out on the Fish and Game pay scale. In his new job, Rutz oversees federal funds shared with the state's sport fish program, monies that come from fishing gear and equipment taxes, and by law can be used only for sport fish research and management.

That could prove problematic for Gov. Sean Parnell's plan to reintegrate the state's Division of Sport Fisheries into the larger, more politically-powerful Commercial Fisheries Division. In the past, commercial fisheries management has been accused of stealing federal sport fisheries funds and funneling them into commercial programs. Rutz isn't likely to go along with anything like that, given that his departure from Alaska's Department of Fish & Game also stemmed in part from exasperation with the department's management.

Rutz confessed he was tired of the "phony Kumbaya" that he saw becoming something of a norm within Fish and Game. That is the stuff of politics, not science. Science is supposed to be contentious. It thrives on discussion and debate. Not so politics or at least not so politics in these days. Discussion is now often considered something that might provide ammunition to political enemies, and thus it is to be stifled -- public policy be damned.
"I know for a fact that officials in the division of Wildlife Conservation have been threatened" to shut up, Schoen said. Unfortunately, Valkenberg added, that's not something new. "We had problems with other administrations in the past. Information was suppressed. Biologists were told not to talk to people. There've been attempts to control what biologists can say."

Sound science or state 'science policy'?

Valkenberg worked for years as a wildlife biologist in the Fairbanks office of Fish and Game, and he traces the politicization of the agency back at least to the administration of two-term Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles, first elected in 1994. It might go back even farther, but most everyone does agree that in the beginning it was different. The first commissioner of Fish and Game, Clarence Louis "Andy" Anderson, a boy from Skagway, came to the agency in 1959 from the federal Bureau of Fisheries with a master's degree from the University of Washington, where he had been a guest lecturer on fisheries.Parnell is by no means the first governor to inject politics into the agency. There is a trend here that has been underway for a long time.

He headed a department that took over from the federal government salmon fisheries devastated by over-fishing and climatic issues, and he championed a drive to do the basic research necessary to try to figure out how to restore those salmon runs. The commissioners who followed him for years generally followed this lead. Not all of them were great administrators, but they usually came with stellar professional pedigrees.

Jim Brooks had done pioneering research on whales and seals in Alaska before he was recruited for the commissioner's job while pursuing a doctorate at the highly respected University of British Columbia in the early 1970s. Ron Skoog, who followed Brooks in 1977, had written his doctoral thesis on the caribou herds of Alaska; it was considered the definitive paper on the subject at the time. Don Collinsworth, the pick to replace Skoog in 1983, was controversial because he held an advanced degree in resource economics, not biology, but he had been immersed for years in the agency culture as a deputy commissioner.

Carl Rosier, who followed Collinsworth once Alaska had achieved statehood, was an old-school fisheries biologist who had been bloodied in the old battles between Fish and Game, which insisted on increasing the number of spawning salmon in Alaska rivers and streams, and commercial fishermen, who thought the biologists were costing them money in pursuit of some crazy theory about maximizing salmon returns.

The scientists turned out to be right, however. Weak salmon runs that had led to a meager catch of 25 million salmon in the year of statehood were slowly but steadily rebuilt. By 1980, the Alaska salmon catch had climbed to 110 million fish, a harvest that hadn't been seen since the 1930s. There have been ups and downs since, but conservative, scientific management has managed to keep annual returns generally high. The statewide catch this year was 164 million -- almost exactly the 10-year average for the decade -- and almost seven times the catch at statehood.


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