Alaska Leaders Finally Manage Game

COMPASS: Points of view from the community

Mike Fleagle / Anchorage Daily News / November 19, 2003

Thanks to the Alaska Legislature, recent action taken by the Board of Game and a favorable governor and administration, active game management is poised to resume in the upper Kuskokwim valley.

Alaska's Constitution declares that we must develop our resources by making them available for maximum use (Article 8, Section 1) and that they shall be utilized, developed and maintained on the sustained yield principle (Section 4). The Alaska Statutes further direct that the Board of Game shall provide for intensive management programs to restore the abundance or productivity of big game prey populations (AS 16.05.255(e)) and even states that the board may not significantly reduce harvest unless intensive management actions are taken basically as soon as possible (AS 16.05.255(f)). With this constitutional and statutory guidance, it is very clear as to why the Board of Game has taken the actions it has.

As a resident of the upper Kuskokwim community of McGrath, I am pleased that we are back on track to rebuilding our once-healthy moose population in Game Management Unit 19(D) East. Moose meat is the single most important wild food resource of the area, and helplessly watching the population drop has been demoralizing and depressing, to say the least. Efforts to reduce the moose harvest and maximize local opportunity have been accomplished in many ways since the decline began; nonresident hunting was eliminated, a no-fly controlled-use area was created and later expanded, seasons were shortened or eliminated and the cow harvest eliminated. A registration permit hunt was established with rules that effectively reduced most nonlocal participation. Despite all these measures, the harvest still does not meet the need of area residents.

The habitat of the upper Kuskokwim is primarily good moose habitat and has been known to support an abundance of moose. The decline of their numbers began with increased predation by wolves due to restrictions on use of aircraft to hunt them but was compounded by several deep-snow winters in the late 1980s and early 1990s. We were successful in getting a predator control program authorized to begin in 1996, but it was never implemented. Instead, a citizens' initiative to ban the use of same-day-airborne wolf hunting was passed in 1996, which really threw the predator-to-prey equation out of balance in a hurry.

The initiative, according to its sponsors, was not meant to totally usurp the ability of the state to do wolf control, only to stop the practice of the general public using aircraft to harvest wolves. With a governor sympathetic to their cause, however, it had the same effect. In 2000, the Legislature enacted an amendment that relieved some of the restrictions to allow land-and-shoot to resume in areas that the Board of Game had designated as "wolf predation control implementation plan" areas, since the governor would not allow wolf control to continue. That measure was overturned in a referendum that same fall, throwing the situation back to a stalemate once again, with the administration unwilling to initiate predator control and the public unable to do so.

That stalemate has led to the decline of our moose population to what is known as the "low density dynamic equilibrium," in which the predator and prey species both fall to a very low level. Without human intervention, that population dynamic will remain in effect for the long term. Local efforts to reduce the wolf population are thought to have some positive benefit in the area, but it is of little help to the overall situation.

Removal of bears has had a positive effect on calf survivability in the experimental micromanagement area around McGrath, and with the removal of wolves and the temporary halting of human harvest in the area, we can expect to see even greater results. It is good to see this final step being initiated, and I want to congratulate and thank the leaders of this state for taking the necessary actions to achieve the goal of rebuilding our moose population.

Mike Fleagle is chief of the McGrath Native Village Council and chairman of the Alaska Board of Game.


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