Scientist First, Activist Second

Letters / Anchorage Press / May 21, 2004

I just read Amanda Coyne's cover story on wolf control ("Hunting the Hunters," April 15-21). The personal shots that she took at me are dismaying enough, but worse is her inaccurate, biased portrayal of my positions.

When Coyne interviewed me (at her request), I told her that my primary focus has always been on trying to do something about the low-quality science that I feel underlies most of Alaska's wolf and bear control programs. I described the year-round basic and applied scientific research that I do on wolves and wolf-prey systems in a couple of large regions of the state. I stressed that I have always felt that good information is the best route to better management. I think I made it clear that whatever I do out there as an "activist" is incidental to these scientific objectives.

Coyne reversed all of this in her story. She made it seem like my primary objective is to score video "I-gotchas" on wolf hunters. Given the emphasis in our interview, she could have included at least something of substance about my scientific efforts.

She seemed particularly interested in my arguments about the importance of a family-based social structure to wolves and the vulnerability of this underpinning of wolf biology to hunting, trapping and control. I told her that the snickering one often hears from agency biologists in Alaska at the use of terms like "family" to describe wolf social structure provides a good example of their unfamiliarity with key areas of science such as sociobiology and behavioral ecology. I pointed out that this terminology is not human-specific, that it is routinely used for other species in prestigious scientific journals such as Science, Nature, and Conservation Biology, and hence that the joke is really on the snickerers. I encouraged Coyne to read a paper that I published in Conservation Biology (Vol. 10, pp. 1068-1081) in which I discussed wolf family behavior and challenged the mainstream thinking that dismisses the impacts of hunting, trapping, and control on this kind of biology. I pointed out that there has not been any comparable peer-reviewed journal rebuttal to this paper.

This was the one bit of my scientific emphasis that she did touch upon in the story, but unfortunately not in an objective way. She mentioned the part about my use of  "family" and related terminology and added that this is  "all but snickered at amongst state biologists" but left out my point (above) that this snickering illustrates some serious scientific ignorance.

Then she showed her bias more directly by dismissing my argument with, "... it's exactly this anthropomorphizing of wolves that gets him into trouble." Note that this was her view, not a quote from opposing biologists. "Anthropomorphizing?"  How does she explain the publication of this thinking and use of these terms in the scientific literature? "Gets him into trouble?" I don't feel in trouble. I made pretty clear to her the confidence I feel with this line of argument, particularly given that it has seen peer-reviewed scientific publication.

It would have been a simple matter for Coyne to at least read the abstract of the Conservation Biology paper. This would have quickly confirmed for her that my terminology and arguments indeed do have a scientific basis.

This was her obligation as a reporter, just as she then also would have been obligated to challenge the state snickerers rather than me in her story.

Providing readers with the opposing positions would have been enough.  Misrepresenting one of the major positions and taking personal shots at its author was poor journalism.
Gordon Haber / Denali Park

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