Alaska Tourism Boycott over Wolf Hunts a Sign of Sheer Foolishness

Craig Medred / Outdoors / Anchorage Daily News / November 9, 2003

Once more the talk of a tourism boycott over the issue of predator regulation, or what some call "predator control,'' is in the air in Alaska.

That any Alaska politician would take this seriously is a sign of naivete.

That any fan of predators, be they bears or wolves, would propose it is a sign of foolishness.

Why? Let us count the reasons:.

Number One -- Wrong Target : Any effort to boycott Alaska tourism over this issue will only hurt supporters of bears and wolves. The only people who will abide the boycott are the people who support the tourism businesses run by wolf and bear lovers.

Bubba Joe Salmon Slayer from Minneapolis isn't going to stay home no matter how many bears and wolves Alaskans want to kill. If he, or she, is inclined to boycott Alaska as a vacation destination, it will more likely be because the airlines have conspired to limit the weight of baggage to 50 pounds per piece. Now there's something that can upset the average Alaska tourist.

When you figure an insulated cooler weighs 10 to 15 pounds to begin with, and you throw in 5 or 10 pounds of ice to keep the salmon cool, there isn't much room left for the bounty of your Alaska vacation.

Number Two -- Not Biggest Wildlife Issue : Continuing these battles over predators distracts attention from the real wildlife and environmental issues facing the state. Simply put, bears and wolves are getting more attention than they deserve. Other issues hardly get mentioned.

What about the dead zones that now exist around some villages? No predators survive there. Neither do any other big-game animals. Just about every nonmigratory species has been shot off in the name of, and need for, subsistence.

What about the off-road vehicle traffic laying waste to what once were remote areas of the state? If there was one miner out there doing the damage to the landscape being done by the armies of riders on four-wheelers, state and federal officials would be battling each other to drag his, or her, butt into court.

But these same officials seem perfectly content to ignore the environmental damage done by four-wheelers.

Before you motorheads blow a gasket, I'm not saying we should ban four-wheelers in the Bush. I am saying the state should build a network of remote trails and require four-wheelers to stay on them.

Meanwhile, what about the efforts of state and federal officials to eliminate hunting as a legitimate cultural activity in the 49th state? Increasingly, that seems to be where we're headed. The data from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game indicates a decade-long decrease in resident hunters.

Increasingly, the trends appear to be headed in two directions: One toward Outside big-game hunters who can afford to pay mega-bucks for their annual, guided excursion (or those willing to splurge on a costly, once-in-a-lifetime hunt); the other toward subsistence hunters who get special privileges.

Or maybe I'm just bitter. I've spent more than 25 years hunting in Alaska and somehow the state now thinks there are thousands of people more qualified for a Nelchina caribou permit. I had caribou hunting friends who this year stooped to "proxy hunting.'' Some of you might be unfamiliar with proxy hunting. It involves getting someone who has lived here forever to sign over their Nelchina subsistence permit to you to hunt.

If, for instance, you want to hunt Nelchina caribou next year and you've just moved to Anchorage from the Lower 48, here's what you do:

Go down to the Alaska Pioneers Home. Ask around for someone who hunted caribou up Glennallen way in the old days. Help them fill out an application for a Nelchina caribou permit. And, after they get their subsistence permit, offer to go shoot the caribou for them under the terms of the state proxy hunting program.

Number Three -- Avoid Blackmail: Political victories are won by building solid constituencies, not threatening people.

Yes, fans of wolves and bears can probably scare some naive Alaskans to their side with the threat of a tourism boycott, but this strategy is, in the long term, short sighted. Some of the victims are going to come to resent the blackmail. Some of them are going to revolt. Some of them might well join the other side.

Let's not forget that all across North America over the course of the past three decades, attitudes have shifted from perceiving predators as bad to accepting them as either good or benign. Hopefully, these attitudes will hold into the future. But you have to wonder.

There seems a very real threat of a backlash when enough people come under the impression that the supporters of wolves and bears care more about the animals than they do about people.

It's OK if you feel that way personally. At times, I feel that way. But I'm not sure it's a wise political strategy for the future of the wolves and bears to make this belief too obvious.

Number Four -- Take The Easiest Route: Why go to all the bother of trying to organize a national boycott when there are easier ways to sink these predator programs?

To twist the words of former Clinton aide James Carvell only slightly: It's the budget, stupid.

Any state program to significantly reduce predator numbers in the interest of growing prey populations is going to require close oversight by state wildlife biologists no matter who does the wolf and bear killing. The biologists work cheap, but they don't work for free. Oversight costs money.

Money is tight in Alaska. Tight money limits options and might actually present an opportunity for wolf and bear lovers to join forces with the majority of Alaska hunters.

Look, as a guy from Anchorage who monitors the rural-urban divide and feels less and less welcome to hunt in Bush Alaska, I'd just as soon the state spent my hunting dollars elsewhere. I doubt I'm alone in this feeling, and the majority of state funding used to match the federal grants that power the Wildlife Conservation Division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game comes from license-buying, urban-based hunters like me.

I'm sure many of them would just as soon the state spent their money on controlled burns to improve moose habitat on the Kenai Peninsula, or machinery with which to mow down decadent spruce-birch forests in the Susitna Valley to allow moose-feeding willow to flourish.

Either of those things makes a lot more budgetary sense than killing wolves to the north of the Alaska Range around McGrath.

Not that I'm overwhelmingly opposed to the idea of a McGrath wolf kill.

The biological data does offer some indication that knocking back the wolf population there -- that's a nice euphemism for killing a bunch of wolves -- might actually allow moose to increase their numbers and break out of what appears to be a population-level stalemate holding both predator and prey at low levels.

Breaking free of this ecological standoff could mean more moose 10 years from now -- along with just as many wolves as there are today. After all, if there's one thing the long history of wolf wars in Alaska should have taught us all it is that wolf populations can proliferate quickly.

Given that, it's hard to get too upset about the idea of anyone killing wolves in the McGrath area. But I still don't want to pay for it.

If people there think they have too many wolves or bears, let them take care of the problem.

Maybe if they have to pay, they'll show a little more appreciation for the thousands of urban Alaska hunters who continue to carry the financial load for management while watching their hunting opportunities continually shrink.

Daily News Outdoor editor Craig Medred can be reached at .

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