Predator Debate Leads Off Public Testimony
Tim Mowry / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
/ February 28, 2004
The plot thickened at the Alaska Board of Game meeting in Fairbanks on Friday
when a trapper from Healy showed up and told the board he had trapped and killed
the leader of one of two wolf packs regularly seen by tourists in Denali National
Park and Preserve.
The wolf had strayed outside a highly publicized and controversial no-trapping,
no-hunting "buffer zone" established by a previous game board four years ago
to protect a pair of wolf packs that roam in and out of the eastern corner of
Alaska's most famous park.
Sitting before the seven-member board wearing a camouflage ball cap, Brent Keith
said he trapped the alpha male in the Mount Margaret pack on Wednesday after
watching the pack of 12 wolves consume a cow moose they had killed less than
a half mile from his house. "I
watched them for five days," Keith said. "They
were four-tenths of a mile from my house. I listened
to them (howling) every night and finally I went out
and put some snares out there. "I figured I'd tell you
about it before you read it in the paper," he said.
Friday marked the first of at least two days of public testimony at the meeting
and Keith's testimony caused a stir in the crowd of about 100 people in a conference
room at the Wedgewood Resort, where the state game board is meeting for two weeks
to review and revise hunting and trapping regulations throughout the Interior,
including the possible elimination of the Denali Buffer Zone.
While many of the 272 proposals submitted to the board relate to predator control
for wolves and bears in order to boost moose and caribou populations, much of
Friday's public testimony centered around the politically-polarized buffer zone.
The 55-square mile buffer zone has been a hot-button issue since it was created
four years ago by a game board appointed by then-Gov. Tony Knowles and is now
in danger of being dissolved by a more hunter and trapper friendly board put
in place by current Gov. Frank Murkowski a year ago. The board is considering
several proposals to get rid of the buffer zone.
Trappers and hunters like Keith argue that there is no biological justification
for the buffer zone and that it is an unnecessary restriction to placate animal-rights
"I don't see any need for a buffer zone; there are plenty of wolves running around
in that area," said Keith, noting there are at least five packs that roam the
area he traps. "These wolves will replace themselves.
"I think people should be concerned about the caribou herd in that area," he
said, referring to the struggling Denali Caribou Herd. "Nothing is going to
replace that caribou herd when it's gone."
Wildlife viewers and animal-rights groups, meanwhile, contend that the buffer
zone helps protect a valuable aspect of Alaska's tourism industry.
Former game board member Vic Van Ballenberghe of Anchorage, a wildlife biologist
who was on the board when the buffer zone was created, urged the board to keep
it in place, even if it is too small to fully protect the wolves.
"It's the one spot in the state where you stand a decent chance of seeing wolves
or hearing them howl," he said. "It represents a high value of viewing that
needs to be preserved. If you rank the animals we have in Alaska and the demand
to see those animals, wolves rank near the top of the list."
Board member Pete Buist pointed out that each time a wolf pack gets displaced
by hunting, trapping or natural mortality, another pack moves in. Five wolf packs
have lived in the area in the last 20 years, he said.
"Do you think tourists can tell the difference between those packs?" Buist asked
Van Ballenberghe. "Do we need the very same wolves to look at?"
But Van Ballenberghe said it takes a pack of wolves time to become tolerant of
humans so they can be viewed on a reliable basis and constant turnover of packs
hinders viewing opportunities."So what you're saying is the buffer zone will allow tourists a better chance
of seeing a habituated wolf?" Buist asked. "Is that what you mean by tolerant?"
Defenders of Wildlife representative Karen Deatherage followed Van Ballenberghe
to the microphone and addressed Buist's question by saying that her group is
working with the National Park Service to educate park visitors about viewing
wolves to decrease habituation issues.
Deatherage also spoke out against two aerial wolf control programs recently initiated
by the game board near McGrath and in the Nelchina Basin that have resulted in
private pilots and hunters killing more than 80 wolves, all in the Nelchina Basin.
Not only have Alaskans voted down aerial wolf hunting twice in statewide elections,
the hunts violate the Airborne Hunting Act, a case Defenders has taken to the
Department of the Interior. On top of that, the state's predator control plans
are not biologically justified, she said.
"The data is simply not there," Deatherage said.
To which board member Ron Somerville replied, "I think Defenders is a little
more conservative than we are when it comes to scientific proof."
When Buist asked Deatherage what conditions Defenders of Wildlife would endorse
predator control in Alaska, she said that would only happen if it involved an
endangered species and all other alternatives had been exhausted. The idea of
making a predator control plan for bears, a proposal the board is considering,
was especially frightening, she said.
"The fact that bears, especially brown bears, reproduce slowly demands bears
be managed conservatively," she said.
As of 5 p.m., more than 50 people had signed up to testify before the board,
which should occupy all of today and part of Sunday before the board begins deliberating
and making decisions on proposals ranging from falconry to predator control.
Tom Swan of Two Rivers encouraged the board to institute more muzzleloading hunts
around the state, including one proposed for the Fairbanks Management Area.
"Currently, there is only one muzzleloader hunt for moose in the state," said
Swan, speaking on behalf of the Alaska State Muzzleloading Association and
the Alaska Chapter of the Coalition of Historical Trekkers.
Wearing a pair of suspenders over a wool shirt, Dave Miller of Fairbanks asked
the board to adopt restrictions on out-of-state hunters on the Salcha River.
He said he supports a proposal that would require non-residents to shoot moose
that have antlers measuring 50 inches or bigger and prohibit them from hunting
Hunting pressure on the Salcha River has increased greatly since the antler restrictions
were instituted on the Tanana Flats two years ago and the Take A Child Hunting
season began in Game Management Unit 20B two years ago, making it harder for
local hunters to find moose.
"Our biggest problem is coming from non-resident hunters," Miller told the board. "In
some cases they've been very arrogant and exercised unethical hunting practices."
In one of the more lighthearted moments at Friday's meeting, a young moose walked
up to the glass doors behind where the game board was sitting as Dr. Jim Simon
of the state subsistence division was giving a report to the board. The moose
caught the attention of game board chairman Mike Fleagle.
"There's subsistence right there," Fleagle said with a chuckle.
News-Miner outdoors editor Tim Mowry can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com
or at 459-7587.
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