The Alaska Department of Fish and Game didn't ask for the money. That should tell us something.
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The state operating budget includes $400,000 for the department "to conduct a public education campaign" about predator control.
Now, the department already provides education about predator control in publications and on its Web site. Biologists and department officials already deal with questions about the controversial programs. And they should.
But a campaign? Timed to coincide with a 2008 ballot initiative to sharply restrict aerial wolf control, this looks like Fish and Game is getting marching orders to use state funds to influence an election.
That's a place where no department of state government has any business.
Ron Clarke, assistant director of Fish and Game's Division of Wildlife Conservation, understands the problem.
"It's tricky territory," Mr. Clarke says. Just about anything the department does with the money will be seen as "clearly attached to this ballot initiative."
Mr. Clarke said the department simply can't get involved in the initiative campaign. The problem is how to stay on the right side of the difference between education and campaigning. Doing that will be a challenge, with this timing and this amount of money, which goes well beyond the normal course of public information. At 400 grand, this one doesn't pass the Little Red Riding Hood test.
No decisions about how to spend the money have been made yet. Mr. Clarke said he can't imagine that the department would do TV ads but might, for example, spend the money to mail brochures on its predator control programs throughout the state.
But again, given the timing, any mass mailing would be seen as influencing the initiative campaign. This territory is too tricky to get through without tripping. Fish and Game shouldn't have to try.
What the Legislature has done with this appropriation is give Fish and Game a problem that it can't solve. It's unreasonable to expect the department to run an education campaign with $400,000 and not wind up on one side of the ballot initiative battle.
Predator control is a complicated business and a controversial issue. The men and women who work for Fish and Game don't operate in a vacuum. They're well aware of the social, emotional, cultural and political aspects of predator control. But their job is to provide the best scientific data and the most accurate field results possible. That information doesn't require an additional $400,000 to be made public.
Lawmakers and the governor can campaign as they like on predator control. But they shouldn't approve the use of state money to pay for it.
Let the Defenders of Wildlife and the Alaska Outdoor Council do battle on their own dimes. Let Fish and Game educate in the normal course of its duties.
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