Let's Manage Hunters, not Wolves

Opinion / Anchorage Daily News / March 19, 2004

I recently returned from the Board of Game meetings in Fairbanks. A play unfolded, but this play began in 1900, when Nome had 12,000 residents, Skagway had 2,012 and Juneau had 1,456. The main occupation categories were hunters, guides, trappers and scouts, and just over 1 percent of the population worked in offices. The total population was 63,593, including 29,536 Alaska Natives.

Even back then, over-hunting and predator control were big issues. Denali National Park was created primarily because hunters were decimating sheep. Elsewhere, looking for ways to eke more game from the harsh land, aerial hunting and poisoning began in the 1940s and 1950s. Poisoning ended with statehood in 1959, but aerial wolf control, including land-and-shoot, continued until 1994. These widespread efforts essentially turned parts of Alaska into moose and caribou feedlots.

Mother Nature yielded only so far, and the temporary explosion of game taxed habitat beyond what it could handle. Moose and caribou populations peaked and then crashed. Predators were blamed, and cries for control increased.

By 1998, Alaska's population grew to 621,400, with an Alaska Native population of 103,287 -- only about 20 percent of the entire population. Whites comprised about 74 percent, numbering 459,463, and were heavily concentrated in Anchorage (258,782), Fairbanks (83,928), and Juneau (30,236).

When poisoning ended at statehood, and when aerial wolf control was banned in 1994, predator/prey populations began to return to their natural balance.

Then, under pressure from the Alaska Outdoor Council, the Legislature passed SB 77, the Intensive Management Game Law. This law mandates that when game numbers drop beyond what is desired for human harvest, predators will be killed. However, now human harvest desires included those of Alaska and international hunters.

Later, in cahoots with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the Board of Game took the historic, artificially high peak population numbers created after decades of aerial wolf control and poisoning and used those estimates to set population and harvest targets for each Game Management Unit.

Protests to a Board of Game made up of only hunters and trappers were ignored.

Alaska's Constitution gives everyone equal access to game. Legislation makes all Alaskans subsistence hunters. Urban hunters have fought against a subsistence preference for rural Alaskans for decades. Why? Polls have shown that the public may accept predator control if done to meet true subsistence needs, so urban residents, who are issued the vast majority of hunting licenses, want to continue to hide behind the subsistence label to maintain their favorite recreational activity unhindered and unchallenged.

Meanwhile, proof of over-hunting abounds. Fish and Game studies show portions of 19D east have a bull/cow ratio of 6 per 100. A November 2001 trend count conducted along the Holitna/Hoholitna Rivers in 19A/B also verified bull/cow ratios of 6/100. In Unit 21D, bull/cow ratios in 3-Day Slough are 15/100. At the Nowitna River mouth, bull/cow ratios are 12/100, with two-thirds of those bulls being yearlings. Fish and Game's goal is 30 bulls per 100 cows in a hunted population.

Why haven't hunters been managed?

All this brings us to the final act of the play. Our radical governor, Legislature, Department of Fish and Game and Board of Game now have what they worked for. Areas eligible for predator control based on artificially high moose harvest objectives and the Intensive Game Management Law include GMU 9E, 9B, 9C, 12Z, 13A, 13B, 13C, 13D, 13E, 14A, 14B, 14C, 16A, 16B, 19A, 19B, 19C, 19D, 20A, 20B, 20C, 21D, 21E, 22A, 22B, 22C, 22D, 22E, 23Z, 24Z and 25D, or approximately 40 percent of the state. And there are cries for more.

Make no mistake -- to meet hunters' goals, predator control will continue forever. You want proof? In Unit 20A, with predators decimated, the moose population now exceeds the carrying capacity of the habitat. Did the Game Board limit the taking of predators so nature can return balance? No. Now Fish and Game and the Board of Game are actively promoting killing cows and calves in Unit 20A and removed the statewide moose-calf hunting prohibition during their last meeting.

Dorothy Keeler is a wildlife photographer and a 27-year Anchorage resident.


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