Board of Game Facing Proposed Changes

Tom Moran / Fairbanks Daily New-Miner / Juneau Bureau / February 24, 2004

JUNEAU--A bill introduced last week in the state Legislature would change the name of the Board of Game to the Board of Wildlife and increase its membership from seven people to nine.

Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, the bill sponsor, argues the change would give wildlife viewers and other non-consumptive users a foothold on a board he says is dominated by hunters and trappers.

"There are people in this state who value non-consumptive uses and they should be represented," Ellis said. "Wildlife belongs to us all, as a common property resource, just like the oil, and it's very valuable for tourism and our Alaskan quality of life and that should be recognized."

The bill has brought praise from wildlife protection group The Alaska Wildlife Alliance and scorn from Sen. Ralph Seekins, R-Fairbanks, and Game Board member Pete Buist. Buist argues that the board already considers non-consumptive use.

"I don't think there's anybody on there that doesn't support it," he said.

But Ellis disagrees. In addition to increasing the number of members, his bill would require that the membership of the board, taken as a whole, should reflect all the different uses of game "in a comprehensive and fair manner," including "sport and subsistence hunting, trapping, non-consumptive uses, tourism and scientific study."

Ellis argues that Gov. Frank Murkowski's selections of board members have shifted the panel overwhelmingly toward hunting and trapping over other uses. Murkowski's six appointments to the seven-member board include two big-game guides, an air boater, a subsistence hunter and trapper, a retired state wildlife biologist featured in state hunting videos and the former director of the state's game division.

Ellis said those appointments spurred him to introduce the bill, as did the state's institution of aerial wolf control and the recent introduction of a bill by Seekins that would heavily loosen restrictions on bear hunting in certain areas.

"The anti-predator kind of bias made me think that's the last straw," Ellis said.

Paul Joslin, wildlife director for the Wildlife Alliance, argues that the majority of Alaskans support more diverse voices on the board. He noted that three-quarters of the Alaskans eligible for them don't own hunting licenses and said the vast majority of people supported a Board of Wildlife idea when polled about it 18 months ago.

"If you want good decisions, you really want a diverse board making those decisions," Joslin said. "They should be representing the public, not representing a minority interest that's trying to get around the public."

But Seekins and Buist say there simply isn't a problem. Seekins, perhaps the foremost proponent of consumptive use in the Legislature, argues that there is ample land for wildlife viewing in Alaska's national parks. And he argues that the wording of the state constitution gives priority to consumptive use.

"I look at the constitution that says we're supposed to manage for sustained yield," he said. "Yield to me means harvest."

He and Buist also both argue that hunting and other uses can coexist.

"Viewing does not conflict with the aims of the hunters," Seekins said. "The hunters want more to view because it basically provides more to be able to harvest."

Buist notes that the board has implemented several programs that favor viewing over other uses, such as setting up bear-viewing areas near Katmai National Park and nixing proposals to hunt and trap wolves in another area north of Anchorage. And programs like aerial wolf control in McGrath will eventually grow wolf populations as game populations rebound, he argued.

Ellis doesn't buy such arguments, arguing that the Board favors moose and caribou over other forms of wildlife.

"Killing predators increases moose and caribou so there's more wildlife to look at?" he asked, referring to Seekins' contention. "That offends me. That's a pretty ridiculous statement on his part."

Joslin argued that wildlife sometimes can't be managed for both consumptive and non-consumptive uses. He said that very specific guidelines are needed to manage wildlife for viewing, citing the two wolf packs that roam Denali National Park. The less than 20 wolves in those packs--which are currently protected by a state buffer zone around the park--account for 20,000 wolf sightings a year, he said.

"Viewable wildlife interests often work with very tiny populations," he said. "Those populations have to be exceedingly well-protected."

Joslin also questioned Seekins' constitutional argument.

"(The constitution) says that the wildlife is for common use for all Alaskans," he said. "It doesn't say for a special interest use."

Ellis says his bill isn't an attempt to have anti-hunting interests take over the board. He stresses that he's only proposing two seats. Murkowski would have the power to appoint anyone he wants into the seats, though Ellis holds out hope the governor would choose people whose focus is non-consumptive use.

"I wanted to start this conversation," he said. "It would be an opportunity for this governor and future governors to bring a broader perspective to the board."

But Buist said the board has always been subject to the politics of the administration. He argues that it would be a mistake to change the whole set up of the board because of objections to any one regime.

"We'd be changing this thing every time we changed governors," he said.

Ellis' bill has been referred to the Senate Resources and Finance committees. Ellis said he doesn't know whether it will get any hearings.

Reporter Tom Moran can be reached at or (907) 463-4893.


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