Diverse Board is Best for Wildlife

COMPASS: Points of view from the community

By Julie Maier / Published: January 26, 2003 / Anchorage Daily News


Board of Game appointments by Gov. Tony Knowles were regionally and philosophically diverse. Is it important to have diversity on the board? I think so. As a board member, I believe diversity on the board ensures the development of the most effective and fair wildlife management strategies possible. Diversity also provides a check on extremism from either side.

Let's use predator control as an example. Knowles' boards adopted a number of wolf-control implementation plans. They also empowered local Alaskans to affect positive changes in important subsistence populations. I was a member of boards that liberalized brown and black bear seasons and limits, legalized chasing of wolves from snow machines, and set limits on wolves of 10 per day! How much more liberal will the new board be? They may establish "no limit" rather than a limit of 10, but the 10 per day limit is never met, so "no limit" will make "no difference." They'll appear more liberal on paper but results in the field will be absent. There will, however, be an impact on perception. The state of Alaska will be perceived as having no ethical boundaries on their treatment of certain wildlife species.

Does predator control always benefit moose and caribou? Predator control was the rule in Alaska a few decades ago. Poisoning of predators and non-target animals was commonly practiced through the 1950s, and aerial hunting of wolves continued through early 1970s. Predators were at all-time lows, and moose and caribou at all-time highs. You could depend on being able to predictably "get your moose" right off your doorstep in some areas. Political activists that control the Alaska Outdoor Council and the urban Advisory Committees lived in Alaska during those days and they miss them.

The critical question is: Can an ecosystem designed to support low densities of moose support high densities in perpetuity? No. Despite that, Knowles' boards often set population objectives for moose and caribou at historical peaks, attained after years of intensive predator control.

An example of predator control gone awry is the Delta caribou herd, which achieved 11,000 in the 1980s then crashed to the lowest number ever because of habitat damage. The hunting public demanded that the herd be increased and got action from the board and Department of Fish and Game in the form of a trapping program. The herd finally abandoned its wintering and calving grounds and still has never recovered. Some species of lichen, preferred winter forage of caribou, require 50 to 100 years to recover.

The nonlethal predator control program conducted under the Knowles administration resulted in the Fortymile caribou herd growing and returning to traditional areas. Despite reduction of wolves and bears, the moose population in the area has not increased. Can there be something other than predation limiting this population of moose?

Here's a final example: At the March 2001 meeting a Department of Fish and Game biologist told the board that the Northern Alaska Peninsula caribou herd was still declining, the habitat was damaged and significant numbers of calves were dying from nutritional stress-related disease. An individual suggested the board adopt a wolf control implementation plan. If damaged habitat cannot support the current population, you'll make matters worse for caribou if you force the habitat to support even more animals! The proposal did not pass, but would have had the board not been diverse and not had a broader understanding of caribou physiology and ecology. The herd would be in worse condition today than two years ago.

Gov. Frank Murkowski says he wants to manage for "maximum abundance." What he means is that he wants moose and caribou to be at historical highs, which are not sustainable. In fact, since humans are continuing to affect ecosystems and are reducing habitat available to wildlife, the number of moose and caribou that can be supported will continue to decline through time no matter who's on the board. The difference is that a philosophically diverse board will be more likely to consider alternative ideas and recognize and avoid management actions that may seriously damage moose and caribou populations.

Julie Maier is vice chair of the Alaska Board of Game. She holds a doctorate in wildlife management from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and specializes in moose and caribou ecology and physiology.

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