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Predator Management Arguments Missed the Main Issue

Opinion / Patrick Valkenburg / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / March 13, 2005

The recent exchange of letters and opinion pieces between Vic Van Ballenberghe, Dave Klein and Acting Commissioner Wayne Regelin is something of a new twist to the old predator management controversy. Although both sides made a few good points, I don't think either side was particularly persuasive.

Van Ballenberghe tried to get some weight behind his criticism of predator control by getting 100 Ph.D.s from around the country to sign it. However, biologists are no less biased than other people, and the list reads mostly like a directory of academics already known to oppose predator control in Alaska or those who have little first-hand knowledge of the subject and thus could be easily persuaded by their like-minded peers. There are a few exceptions, though, and their opinions deserve to be considered.

While it is hard to disagree with many of the points in the Van Ballenberghe/Klein letter to the governor, some of them are a real stretch. For example, the implication that long-term biological damage will be done by poorly conducted predator control is not supported by any scientific data. Quite the contrary. Any biological effects of the poorly done and widespread poisoning programs conducted by the feds during the 1950s were gone by the early 1970s. Those control programs were more extensive and more poorly planned than anything being contemplated today. Biological systems are resilient, and any "long-term consequences" of poorly done predator control are more likely to be political than biological.

Acting Commissioner Regelin of the Department of Fish and Game made some good points in his response, including the fact that when faced with controversial problems, academic scientists will always recommend more study (with little appreciation of the cost) and usually don't appreciate the urgency of needed management actions. A point Regelin didn't make but should have is that much of the urgency of the current programs comes from years of neglect by previous administrations and pent-up frustration on the part of the hunting public. Wildlife biologists who condemn the current administration for wanting to do too much should also have condemned previous administrations for doing almost nothing.

Unfortunately, many of the current programs are not being implemented as well as they could be, and Regelin should have been willing to admit that. The last thing we need are more examples of predator control programs that don't work. Based on past experience, it is quite likely that the land-and-shoot wolf hunting program in Unit 13 will eventually produce more moose, but based on the same experience, the chance of success of public wolf hunting in Units 20E and 16 is low. As one knowledgeable Department of Fish and Game biologist recently said to me, "Wolves that are killed in ineffective control programs just become poster pups for the anti-management advocates."

Forested, inaccessible areas with high bear densities like Unit 20E and 16 will require more creative solutions than a little aerial hunting of wolves. Those areas will also need more robust collection of scientific data as management actions unfold. A major point that both sides seemed to miss is that with the current budget crunch the Division of Wildlife Conservation is experiencing, it is unlikely that predator management programs can be done well despite the best intentions of the Board of Game and the division. In the long run, the people who will be hurt most are the hunters and their families who rely on wild game for food and income. Without adequate data and a track record of successfully done predator management, the next administration will likely torpedo all such programs in the future.

Rather than arguing over whether predator management is being done right, those who truly support scientific wildlife management would be more effective if they put their efforts into lobbying for additional funding for the department. Given the wherewithal, department biologists have shown that they can and will work with the Board of Game and the administration to design predator management programs that will withstand scientific scrutiny and get the results the hunting public and the administration wants.

Patrick Valkenburg worked as a research and management biologist and research coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for 26 years. He retired from the department in 2003.


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