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The Game Board in Alaska is Out of Balance

Polling indicates that over 80% of voters feel that a Board of Wildlife made up of hunters, trappers and wildlife viewers, wildlife photographers and wildlife tourism interests would better reflect their views.

Paul Joslin / Compass Points of View / Anchorage Daily News / April 16, 2005

Living with the current Board of Game is like having an alcoholic in the family. It is intoxicated with power and, like an abusive head of household, it's hurting the rest of us.

It sees nothing wrong in having a single trapper come close to totally destroying a Denali wolf pack that some 20,000 people enjoyed seeing each year. When Alaskans twice voted against the aerial killing of wolves, it chided the public's decision. This year alone, Board of Game-approved aerial gunners have killed 270 wolves, drastically reducing wolf numbers over vast areas.

The Board of Game is now targeting bears. This March it approved opening a July 2007 trophy hunt of the world-famous McNeil brown bears. Thanks to a well-run Alaska Department of Fish and Game program, these bears have provided exceptional close viewing for thousands of people in a manner that is so safe that since the program's inception more than 30 years ago there has not been a single incident. Polling indicates that most hunters abhor the thought of these habituated bears being shot, and many expressed their disapproval at the meeting. So did 7,500 people contrasted with only about 15 supporters. However, like a truly addicted person, the Board of Game does not listen to anyone with a contrary view.

And the abuse continues. It approved a mass brown bear killing program east of Tok coupled with approving for the first time the shooting of brown bears over dog food and doughnuts. Its goal is to eliminate 81 bears or 60 percent of the bear population by June 30 as a way to create more moose for hunters. Just like an alcoholic ignoring the doctor's advice, it openly chastises the wisdom of scientists. The Board of Game doesn't know how many bears there are in the targeted area nor has any real understanding about what the winter habitat conditions can sustain in the way of moose. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has been hit with huge cuts in its research budget and can't provide much in the way of answers. When the National Academy of Sciences concluded its two-year study "Wolves, bears and their prey in Alaska" in 1997, it said that brown bear populations are exceedingly difficult to count, are easily overharvested, and once reduced cannot easily recover. Brown bears, it noted, take many years to mature, have a very low reproductive rate and may go as long as nine years between litters.

What can be done about the harsh extremism being expressed by the Board of Game? Gov. Frank Murkowski, who appointed all of the Board of Game members, could replace them with more moderate individuals as their terms expire. However, it is clear by his latest three appointments only hard-liners are being chosen. The current Board of Game is a reflection of Gov. Murkowski's own ideology that favors creating and maintaining a powerful monopoly with a single-minded agenda. This runs counter to the Alaska Constitution. It says that it "reserves ownership of Alaska's wildlife to all of the people of Alaska." It doesn't say that it reserves ownership of Alaska's wildlife solely for the pleasure of a single user group.

The Legislature could break the monopoly by failing to approve Gov. Murkowski's appointments. It could also create a Board of Wildlife. Polling indicates that over 80 percent of voters feel that a Board of Wildlife made up of hunters, trappers and wildlife viewers, wildlife photographers and wildlife tourism interests would better reflect their views than a Board of Game made up of only hunters and trappers. Even more telling, nearly 70 percent of hunters feel the same way, as does every major region in the state. Hunters as well as everyone else recognize that having diversity on boards is the basis for making good decisions.

Whenever total and absolute power is given to any one group, it has the same effect as giving too much alcohol. It goes to the head, and bad decisions get made.

Wildlife activist Paul Joslin is a biologist for the conservation group Friends of McNeil River.

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