Who's the Enemy -- Wolves, or Us?

COMPASS: Points of view from the community

Bill Sherwonit / Opinion / Anchorage Daily News / December 24, 2003

"In Alaska, moose and caribou are our livestock. ...
We are just trying to protect our livestock like any other state."

-- John Manly, Spokesman for Gov. Frank Murkowski

About a decade has passed since Wally Hickel uttered his infamous cry, "You just can't let nature run wild." Now we get a governor, or at least his spokesman, who has decided that Alaska's wildlife are really nothing more than livestock. Well, not all wild critters; just some big-game animals that residents prefer to eat. I'm kind of surprised John Manly didn't include sheep. Or musk ox. I mean, we really do have a musk ox farm, right out in Palmer. Maybe it's because they don't inhabit the McGrath area, ground zero for Alaska's latest wolf-eradication program.

You'd think such a foolish utterance would make our state's administration a laughingstock among reasonable, thoughtful people everywhere. But I'd bet more than a few Alaskans nodded their heads in agreement when they read or heard that quote.

Personally, I don't know whether to laugh or cry. To link wildlife with domesticated animals as Manly does is both arrogant and ridiculous. But it explains a lot, mostly because it's so self-serving. Manly's flippant comment attempts to rationalize why our governor, his political appointees to the Board of Game, and most members of the heavily conservative Alaska Legislature are so intent on controlling -- i.e., killing -- wolves.

How can we Alaskans keep electing leaders who are stuck in a time warp; who represent the values of a century (or more) ago? To them, moose and caribou (i.e., livestock) are good and desirable, wolves are bad. Wolves are competitors, wolves are vermin who steal food from humans. So we need to get rid of 'em when we can. I get the feeling our state government and Board of Game would organize wolf-killing programs all over Alaska, if they could.

I also suspect that a lot of these guys -- and they are mostly guys -- consider bears to be vermin. But when bears get big enough, they become trophy animals, attracting big-game hunters to Alaska from around the world. They've also become big business in the tourism industry. Because they (unlike wolves) bring Alaska a lot of money, it's not quite so easy to order a predator-control kill of bears, even if they're killing more moose calves than wolves. But I digress.

The idea of wildlife as livestock meshes pretty darn well with another Hickel notion, that of the owner state. We Alaskans own the caribou, the moose, the hills and valleys, the rivers and lakes, and of course the wolves that many McGrath residents want killed off. Being the owners, we can mess around with things and Outsiders who don't like it can go to hell. Of course, this owner-state stuff really applies only to state land. Our neighbors in the Lower 49 also own a piece of Alaska's federal lands, which is why our governor and Legislators can't just do whatever they please wherever they please, thank goodness. On state land, though, we can turn Alaska into one giant game farm if we want. After we kill enough wolves and transplant enough bears, maybe we can start some captive-breeding programs to boost moose and caribou numbers. There ain't much difference between caribou and reindeer herds, is there?

Wildlife-as-livestock also fits well with another popular western, Judeo-Christian concept: the idea that all of nature was created for human benefit. Of course nature in its wildest forms isn't always easy to use. So forests are cut down, the earth is mined, animals are tamed. Even the possibility of moose and caribou as livestock makes them seem more valuable to us humans, don't you think? Wolves, on the other hand, seem hopelessly wild. Yet, paradoxically, wolves behave much more like humans than moose or caribou do. Maybe a little too much, for some folks. Maybe that's the problem.

Bill Sherwonit is a nature writer who lives in Anchorage.

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