Biologists oppose politics of Ballot Measure 1

My turn

Posted: Monday, October 30, 2000

By now you've probably seen opinion pieces suggesting that wildlife biologists favor Proposition 1 to "protect Alaska's wildlife." They're telling you Proposition 1 would keep outside special interests from meddling with our wildlife and return management to the professionals. So why would people like us retired biologists with over 20 years each with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game urge you to vote no on Proposition 1?

Wildlife management in Alaska has never been entrusted solely to "professionals." Constitutional authority for making wildlife law lies with the Legislature, which has delegated authority for making regulations to the Board of Game. Professional biologists advise the Board of Game, but the Board also takes testimony from local advisory committees and the public. Some advice is based on scientific data, but much of it is based on values, emotions and beliefs about how things ought to be. There are no laws of science which dictate where, what, how, when, why or whether to hunt. Almost no legislators and few advisory committee or Board of Game members have any training in scientific wildlife management. The decisions they make involve choices among conflicting values and attitudes and are thus inherently political.

Like most wildlife biologists, we agree that the primary, and usually best, way for the public to participate in wildlife management and policy development is through local advisory committees and the Board of Game. But that system has its limits. Advisory committees are stacked with avid hunters. Committees and Board members are hard working and conscientious and do an admirable job of fine-tuning seasons, bag limits, and everyday hunting rules. But these bodies in general have great difficulty dealing with the values of the majority of Alaskans who do not hunt.

The public can also influence wildlife policy by appealing directly to the Legislature. The Alaska Chapter of The Wildlife Society has come out against legislative tinkering with the more deliberative and thorough Board of Game process. The Legislature has refused to confirm recent appointments by the governor that would have brought more balance to the board. It recently passed a law allowing same-day airborne hunting of wolves that overrides advice of the Department of Fish and Game, the governor's veto, and a majority of Alaska's voters. The Legislature is prone to influence from special interests and the whims of powerful committee chairmen. .

A third way for the public to influence wildlife management is through the governor, who represents all Alaskans and is highly sensitive to statewide public opinion and demands. Every governor for the past 20 years has stopped predator control programs because of widespread public opposition. The governor only appears to be at odds with the Legislature and the Board of Game. In reality, the citizens of Alaska are at odds with each other on how we want our wildlife resources managed.

The final and usually last resort for people to influence wildlife policy is through initiatives and referendums, which are part of the checks and balances that constitutionally keep any one part of government from wielding too much power. Wildlife, initiatives have actually been rare, with only three since statehood. Initiatives will never replace the more deliberative advisory committee and board system for setting everyday hunting rules. We firmly believe, however, that initiatives serve as a useful warning system when the actions of the Legislature and board stray too far from the larger public's values and desires.

The Constitution says all power resides in the people. Wildlife is reserved to the people for common use consistent with the public interest and for the maximum benefit of the people. Who can better decide what's in the public's interest or what benefits them than the people themselves? Initiatives are a reasonable check on the Legislature, and that's why our Constitution guarantees them as a right of the people. Proposition 1 doesn't return power to the Alaskan people, it takes it away.

Ken Whitten recently retired after more than 24 years with the Department of Fish and Game as an area management biologist. Schoen is senior scientist with the Alaska office of the National Audubon Society who spent more than 20 years as a biologist with ADF&G in Juneau, Fairbanks and Anchorage.



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