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In The Northwest: Alaska's Politicians More Predatory Than Any Wolf

Joel Connelly / Seattle Post-Intelligencer / April 8, 2005

On trips to Denali National Park, our family has been among thousands of Alaska visitors entranced by socializing habits and hunting tactics of North America's most-photographed wolf pack.

But the Toklat River wolves are, this winter, in peril. Trappers just outside the national park boundary have killed two "alpha" females in the 11-member pack and likely injured a third animal.

The Alaska Board of Game sneers at calls from park biologists, wildlife groups and even U.S. senators for a halt to wolf trapping in a wedge of state-owned land that juts westward into the national park.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton -- the smiling Stepford secretary of the Bush Cabinet -- has not bothered to answer a letter from senators asking that she act to save what they called "a national treasure."

Senseless trapping of the Toklat wolves comes to mind as a more treacherous species of predator -- Alaska's ruling politicians -- moves in for the kill. Its prey: the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

In their bid to drill the coastal plain of America's greatest wilderness, Alaska's pols have suppressed 1950s-era development rhetoric in favor of fuzzy reassurances.

"Alaska's environmental standards are the highest in the world ... Alaska has proven it can be responsible. Wildlife in 'ANWR' will continue to coexist with cautious oil and gas exploration," Gov. Frank Murkowski (or, more accurately, his flack) wrote in a recent Seattle Times Op-Ed piece.

Oh yeah? A quick look at recent news exposes Murkowski's reassurances as a tissue of falsehoods.

Baiting grizzlies: Alaska officials are, for the first time, allowing the killing of grizzly bears by baiting them with grease, dog food and doughnuts. The "control" effort is centered near the Yukon-Alaska border.

 The state hopes to see 81 grizzlies killed, as part of an effort to increase the moose population for the benefit of human hunters.

Trophy hunting: Ignoring thousands of comments from across America, the Board of Game has indicated it will soon open trophy bear hunting on state land between Katmai National Park and the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary.

About 200 miles southwest of Anchorage, the McNeil River Sanctuary has one of the world's biggest concentration of brown bears. As many as 106 bears, including cubs, have been observed near McNeil Falls during the summer chum salmon run.

Killing wolves: Alaska resumed a wolf "control" program last winter in two areas. Using aerial and land-and-shoot tactics, the state aims to kill more than 500 wolves. At least 250 have been killed so far. The killing of predators was halted for some years because of public protests. Since Murkowski was elected in 2002, however, the "control" effort has resumed with a vengeance.

"We can't just let nature run wild," former Alaska Gov. Wally Hickel once declared.

Development-minded Alaskans have long claimed that wildlife will toe the line and accommodate strip mines and clear-cuts and wilderness roads.

Critical questions and warnings have been treated with contempt. In the 1970s, fishery groups in Cordova resisted the Valdez pipeline terminus and oil port by raising the prospect of a catastrophic tanker spill in Prince William Sound.

The Anchorage Times snorted in response, "The fears about damage from oil spills are like the fears of Henny Penny when she ran to tell the king that the sky was falling."

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, famously told Prince William Sound fishermen, "Werner von Braun, you know, the spaceman, assured me that all of the technology of the space program will be put into the doggone tankers, and there will not be one drop of oil in Prince William Sound."

After the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef on Good Friday of 1989 and dumped 11.9 million gallons of oil into the Sound, the oil industry's strumpets on Capitol Hill were hard to find.

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, spent part of Congress' Easter recess in California, picking up a $2,000 honorarium from an industry group. When the House Merchant Marine Committee took up tanker-safety legislation that fall, Young was moose-hunting near Fort Yukon.

A half-century ago, a group of well-connected Anchorage businessmen -- including Anchorage Times publisher Robert Atwood -- filed oil leases in the Kenai National Moose Range southwest of the city. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had designated the moose range in 1941.

Oil was struck a year later. An interior secretary nicknamed "Giveaway McKay" threw open 250,000 acres in the moose range to oil leasing. Only a nationwide protest by conservation and wildlife groups -- one of the first actions of its kind -- forced a moratorium on leases and the study of their effect on the moose.

Ultimately, the western half of the moose range was opened to leasing. Responding to public pressure, Interior Secretary Fred Seaton did protect the remainder of the refuge.

The Anchorage investors made about $3 million apiece, according to John Strohmeyer's book "Extreme Conditions: Big Oil and the Transformation of Alaska."

Alaska insiders continue to do well. The Los Angeles Times revealed last year that Stevens has become a millionaire through a modest ($50,000) investment made in partnership with a developer.

Stevens helped the same developer secure a $450 million housing contract at Elmendorf Air Force Base outside Anchorage. One of the senator's interests was a partnership that owns a building leased at $6 million a year to an Alaska Native corporation that Stevens helped create.

The senator has since sold his controversial investments and transferred the proceeds into a blind trust.

We in the Lower 48 should take a message from the wolf trappings, bear baiting and insider luck: Don't trust these guys! They would strangle Bambi to make a buck.

The federal lands and wildlife populations of Alaska belong to all of us. Our prime task, as overseers, is to protect "The Great Land" from its own politicians.

Joel Connelly can be reached at 206-448-8160 or joelconnelly@seattlepi.com

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