Winds of change?

Game board meeting could introduce a shift in management rules

Posted: Sunday, October 17, 2004

If wild animals ran for public office in Alaska, they could hardly create more debate than they are poised to bring to Juneau on Nov. 2.

Alaska Board of Game proposals up for vote at the board's Nov. 2-5 meeting in Juneau include potentially sweeping changes that could open areas in the Mendenhall Valley and around the Mendenhall Glacier currently closed to hunting.

"I've been doing this for 12 years. ... This is the most interesting meeting I've seen," said Kim Titus, Alaska Department of Fish and Game deputy director for wildlife conservation.

But Titus added, "We've heard very little from the public, despite the sweeping proposals. From my perspective as deputy director, it's Quietsville."

The approximately 30 pages of game proposals for Unit 1C - a vast game management area whose major communities are Juneau and Gustavus - includes enough drama to fill several Discovery Channel specials. That's not even including the Southeast-wide proposals. All the proposals can be viewed at www.boards.

The local proposals reflect serious game management concerns in the area.

For example:

• While Juneau hunters are tripping over themselves (or illegally donning night-vision goggles) to bag a moose in Gustavus, the peninsula's large herd is gradually munching itself out house and home.

• Juneau wildlife advocates and deer hunters have collided over wolf trapping on Douglas Island for several years. But the factions merged in a wolf subcommittee, which stewed over the issue all summer and now is ready to unveil its compromise wolf management plan to the board.

• The inflammatory debate over a Nov. 2 ballot initiative to ban bear baiting in Alaska could spill into a Board of Game discussion on two local hunters' bids to reintroduce baiting in the Juneau area. Bear baiting is controversial because some Alaskans feel it is unethical and worry that it habituates bears to human food. Baiting proponents say baiting is the main harvest method for black bears in some parts of the state and that it would complicate bear management for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

• In the past, Juneau residents have complained about duck hunting in proximity to homes and roads in the Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge. A current proposal would restrict hunting in the refuge to a quarter-mile in range of homes and roads.

• Many recreation areas and roads are closed to hunting throughout Southeast Alaska. Should the Board of Game open all the areas in Southeast Alaska (there are 30 of them) that are currently closed to hunting, including eight on the Juneau road system? Proposal 67 in the Board of Game proposal book would allow the board to consider reopening each closed area for any or all species, or change the closed area's boundaries.

The Juneau-Douglas Fish and Game Advisory Committee had a first pass at the Juneau-Gustavus proposals at its Oct. 7 regular meeting and a follow-up Oct. 11 meeting.

The committee voted to support the wolf subcommittee plan and voted against the wetlands refuge proposal.

Regarding the latter vote, the committee decided that a new training requirement for hunters who use the refuge should be allowed to take effect before more drastic measures are taken.

It hasn't yet taken action on the other proposals, committee chairwoman Kathy Hansen said.

The committee, made up of local residents, doesn't have the authority to nix game proposals. Rather it provides its advice to the Board of Game - which will convene Nov. 2-5 at the Westmark Baranof at 127 Franklin St. in downtown Juneau.

Following are a few developments regarding the major proposals:

On Oct. 7, the Juneau-Douglas committee voted to support a compromise between Juneau hunters and wildlife advocates to reopen the wolf hunt on Douglas Island, but limit it to three wolves per season.

Recent studies on Southeast Alaska's wolves indicate that the level of harvest is "sustainable," and won't seriously harm a pack, said Jenny Pursell, co-chair of the group's Wolf Subcommittee and co-founder of Voices for Douglas Island Wildlife.

In 2002, a trapper legally took what some believe was the island's entire wolf population, to the dismay of local tour guides and naturalists.

But when the Board of Game instituted a de facto ban on wolf hunting on Douglas Island in 2003, deer hunters raised alarm about potential harm to the island's herd.

Hansen was "very pleased" with the compromise on Douglas Island wolves. "It's one of those compromises that not everybody is totally happy, but it's pretty close," she said.

While no one is certain there are wolves currently on Douglas Island, there's no question about the abundance of moose in Gustavus.

Probably about 45 percent of the annual moose harvest in Gustavus is taken by Juneau residents, said Hansen.

This year, hunters took 42 moose in 30 hours in a hunting area that's only 20 square miles.

"There needs to be some changes. It's just flat getting unsafe," Hansen added.

"We need to come up with a solution to spread it out and slow it down," said committee vice chairman Nick Yurko.

Numerous Board of Game proposals suggest a vast array of methods for addressing the Gustavus problem. Hunters and Gustavus residents have pitched proposals to limit or change the dates for the hunt.

Meanwhile, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is considering its own major changes to the moose hunt, and plans to limit the hunting window next year.

Yurko said that hunters aren't the only ones in danger. He and others fear that the Gustavus herd is headed for "a great big crash" because it's running out of winter food.

In winter, moose "snowbirds" throughout the Glacier Bay region descend on Gustavus to escape the harsh conditions in the mountains. "They've devoured about every willow bush in the (Gustavus) forelands," said Neil Barten, area wildlife management biologist.

If Gustavus is blanketed by a heavy winter snow, the moose could run out of food. "That's what we are really concerned about," Barten said.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at

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