Wildlife Management System Great

Compass / Anchorage Daily News / Pat Valkenburg / February 27, 2003


It is apparent from recent opinion pieces and letters that Alaska's wildlife management controversy is gaining strength once again. Many Alaskans are eagerly awaiting, or fearing, the new direction in wildlife management policy outlined by Gov. Frank Murkowski. Because wildlife is so important to Alaskans both spiritually and economically, it is not surprising that feelings run high when policies change. For some of us, wildlife is the primary reason we came to Alaska, and it has become the focus of our lives. For many others, access to wildlife is viewed as a birthright.

Fortunately for all of us, Alaska has one of the fairest, most scientifically based, and most democratic wildlife management systems in the world. The system provides a high degree of balance, fairness and science-based management.

When the Alaska Constitution was drafted in the 1950s, people had a good idea of how to do it right. The governor and commissioner guide policy, the Legislature appropriates money, and the Fish and Game boards (with authority from the Legislature) allocate resources. Local advisory committees provide local and regional perspectives and public input to the boards. The function of the Department of Fish and Game is to provide professional expertise and consistent administration so that the boards, the Legislature, and the governor all have practical and scientifically sound information for setting policies and making management and allocation decisions.

I have been working as a wildlife biologist in Alaska long enough to have seen five changes in administrations and six governors. Of the six, only two (Jay Hammond and Murkowski) expressed much interest in wildlife or established clear wildlife management policies. Whether policies have been clearly explained or not, no administration has managed to avoid controversy in fish and wildlife management decisions. This is particularly true of volatile issues like predator management, especially during times of transition. During administrative changes, controversy is also often fueled by miscommunication between the incoming administration and the professional staff of the department, by the propensity of the media to use the most inflammatory possible headlines in their zeal to sell papers and by members of the public who fear the worst whenever a new administration takes over.

To all those who have strong feelings about wildlife management, I recommend patience. Let the new administration have a chance to develop its policies and build lines of communication with the department, the boards, the Legislature and the public. It is a positive sign that our new governor is interested in wildlife and views it as a valuable economic resource rather than a political liability.

To people who fear a resumption of predator management, keep in mind that no matter how it is done, it could only ever occur on a very small part of the state. The entire area of Game Management Units 19D and 13 comprises less than 5 percent of the land area of the state. At least half the state is some kind of federally protected land where predator control will never occur, and in most of the rest of the state, there are no serious conflicts between predators and people.

Biologists have learned a great deal about the ecological relationships of wolves, bears and moose over the last 25 years, and we are continually striving to develop management programs that are less controversial and more likely to be successful. In the science of modern wildlife management, new knowledge comes as much from management "mistakes" as it does from carefully designed research. It is not possible to know everything before a project is started, so outcomes are sometimes different from predictions. But the "mistakes" are rarely noticeable for more than a few years because natural systems are resilient and wildlife populations fluctuate.

On balance, over the last 50 years, wildlife management has been a tremendous success story in North America, and Alaska has one of the best systems and the most experienced and well-trained biologists in the world. None of this will change with the new administration.


Pat Valkenburg has been a wildlife biologist in Alaska since 1972 and research and management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game since 1977. He is currently the department's research coordinator in Fairbanks.

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