Predator Control Not Good Science
Compass: Points of view from the community

Gordon C. Haber / Anchorage Daily News / February 26, 2003


Once again, wolf and bear control are planned for an alleged ungulate problem, this time in the McGrath area, where proponents say moose have declined sharply to low levels.

Once again, control proponents are claiming that their views are based on science whereas the opposition is just politics, emotion and outside interference.

On the contrary; there is major scientific criticism of the McGrath wolf-bear control plan, but it is being brushed aside by the fewer than half-dozen state Fish and Game biologists who conceived the plan and continue to promote it zealously. The criticism comes from at least nine experienced scientists with diverse perspectives.

I provided detailed technical reviews in 1996, 2000 and 2001 pointing out, among much else, that neither the moose census nor harvest data show the alleged low, declining area-wide moose numbers and hunter problems. Two moose biologists who live and work in the McGrath region provided a similarly critical review in 2001.

Several other biologists expressed their reservations to the state's so-called adaptive management committee in 2001, and several subsequently spoke with or wrote directly to Gov. Tony Knowles.

This initial scientific opposition led to a hold on the Department of Fish and Game's plan to begin wolf control in March 2001, pending the outcome of a formal peer review process the department agreed to convene. It began this process shortly thereafter by selecting eight reviewers.

Most were well known U.S. and Canadian wolf-ungulate biologists, including five with a history of supporting other wolf control programs, two of whom had conducted their own control programs. One was a Fish and Game biologist from the same office that had developed the McGrath control plan. Another was one of the Board of Game members who approved it.

This was not an unfavorably predisposed panel. Nonetheless, Fish and Game did something else to try to shield the control plan from the additional scientific scrutiny many thought it was about to get. It instructed the reviewers not to evaluate anything about the alleged moose problem or justification for control -- to simply accept these as a given and limit their reviews to the accompanying "study" plan, i.e., a set of procedures designed to understand the results of the control actions.

Few Alaskans were likely to distinguish between the control ("implementation") and study plans; hence the control plan could enjoy the prestige of being associated with a scientific review without actually being at risk.

However, four of the eight reviewers still felt compelled to question the justification provided for control, primarily regarding weaknesses they saw in the moose censuses and how these were being interpreted to portray a major problem, just as I and several other scientists had done independently over the preceding months.

The Fish and Game biologist-authors of the control plan added their written responses to the reviewers' comments without giving them additional input, arrogantly blowing them off wherever they questioned the justification for contro. To one of the reviewers who criticized the control plan, they responded that he "seemed confused about his charge to review only the study plan. ..."

To another they responded that the steep 1996-to-2001 moose decline might be difficult to understand but that "department biometricians" and local residents have concluded it is real. "It therefore appears unreasonable to argue that moose have not declined." Five months later, the 2001 moose census produced an estimate more than twice as high as the previous year and about the same as the first census, in 1996.

To another: "It is not the purpose of the study plan to second-guess political decisions that have already been made" (to proceed with the responders' control plan). Remember this comment the next time you hear a control advocate talk about taking the politics out of predator control and returning it to the Fish and Game biologists who know best.

Gov. Murkowski should act swiftly to kill this scandalous ruse. He is one of its victims. It is anything but the quality wildlife science he has promised repeatedly would be one of his administration's bottom lines.

Gordon Haber, Ph.D., is an independent, 37-year Alaska wildlife scientist who conducts wolf-ungulate research in the Denali, Fortymile and other areas with funding from Friends of Animals.

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