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The state Board of Game, probably convening for the last time in its current makeup, wrestled with ethical as well as biological issues in a meeting that ended Thursday in Juneau.
If the Game Board made every decision based only on biology, there'd be no need for the board, said member Julie Maier of Fairbanks. The board sets rules for hunting and trapping on state and private land and some federal lands in Alaska.
"I think we deal with far more than biology," agreed board member Jack Lentfer of Homer. "We deal with ethics and aesthetically acceptable methods of hunting and trapping."
During the six-day meeting that just ended, members sometimes balanced the freedoms of hunters and trappers against the contrary wishes of homeowners or wildlife viewers who live near hunting grounds.
But it probably was this board's last hurrah.
Five members of the seven-person board were appointed by Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles in July, after the legislative session ended. The Republican-led Legislature refused to consider confirming five other nominees, effectively rejecting them. The five July nominees or others named in their place still need to be confirmed by the Legislature.
Republican Gov.-elect Frank Murkowski, who takes office Dec. 2, is expected to replace at least some of the new appointees. The term of a sixth board member, a Knowles appointee who was confirmed in 2001, ends March 1.
The Game Board's next meeting is scheduled to begin March 7 in Anchorage.
Dan Saddler, spokesman for Murkowski's campaign, said the governor-elect has no official position on the Game Board nominations yet. "There are many issues the governor will face, and this is one of them," he said.
"If we all get axed like the French Revolution ... what is the public going to think about it?" asked Game Board member Joel Bennett of Juneau. "Is the public going to think that's fair?"
Lawmakers used to defer to governors on their appointments, said Bennett, who has served on the Game Board intermittently for nearly 15 years under several governors.
"Now if you don't buy into predator control at a pretty aggressive level, you don't get through the Legislature," he said.
Board member Victor Van Ballenberghe of Anchorage said board candidates didn't used to be interrogated and vilified and asked about wolf control by legislative committees.
But it's the Game Board that favors politics over science, said Jesse VanderZanden, executive director of the Alaska Outdoor Council, a statewide organization of more than 12,000 sport hunters and fishermen. He faulted the current board for its actions to protect wolves in Denali National Park, Douglas Island and Southeast when wolf populations weren't in trouble.
"Some of the decisions that we're seeing are not based on a conservation concern for a particular species. They're based on politics," VanderZanden said.
In October the board added a no-hunting and -trapping buffer near Denali National Park for wolves, and extended the term of a previous buffer.
The board's actions last week in Juneau were a mixed bag of adding to hunting and trapping opportunities in some places and cutting back in others. Board member Tim Towarak of Nome was absent.
The board unanimously banned hunting and trapping of wolves on Douglas Island until the wolf population has built up or the number of bagged deer drastically declines. A trapper had killed seven wolves, believed by some to be an entire pack and perhaps all the wolves on the island.
Knowles, in a letter to the proposal's sponsor, said to allow one person to wipe out the island's population of wolves with no consideration for the views of local residents was not consistent with his principles of wildlife management.
Knowles said his principles were to ensure long-term conservation of all species, provide for the broadest range of human values and uses, and base decisions on sound science in a responsive public process.
Hunting groups said the proposal wasn't based on science. They said wolves in the Juneau area aren't depleted, but the deer on Douglas Island would be if the wolves aren't culled.
The Game Board also in a 6-0 vote trimmed the hunting and trapping seasons for wolves in Southeast to protect pregnant mothers and dependent pups.
About 200 wolves are taken each year in Southeast, state biologists said. They advised against shortening the season, saying the wolf population is stable and healthy.
Van Ballenberghe said he has seen the Game Board liberalize wolf and bear seasons and bag limits over the past 15 years in response to the perception that Alaska had a predation problem everywhere.
"I suggest that was an overreaction on the part of past boards," he said Thursday. The board should recognize that "overly long" seasons don't address conservation concerns about wolf pups, he said.
"Not only is that a problem for the conservation of wolves, I think it sends a message once again that we devalue wolves and we regard them only as predators and varmints and something to be reduced and in some cases gotten rid of."
The Alaska Wildlife Alliance, a conservation group, said wolves are taken for "no reason" when they're killed outside the period of prime pelts. But the Alaska Outdoor Council said that assumption "ignores the advantage of sustainable ungulate (hoofed animals) harvests for personal consumption and maintaining a balanced predator-prey relationship."
The board considered several issues that pitted consumptive users of wildlife against people who live near hunting grounds and who had ethical objections to some hunting and trapping practices.
The board set some limits on trapping and snaring in Gustavus but largely refrained from taking similar actions throughout Southeast.
The Gustavus Community Association was concerned about moose or dogs being caught in traps or snares.
The group asked the board to ban snares in the unincorporated town of about 430 people 50 miles northwest of Juneau, and ban trapping within a quarter-mile of roads, trails, private buildings and the high-tide line.
It also wanted traps and snares to be identified so violations could be traced to the trapper. The group wanted trappers to check their gear in the field every 24 hours, so unintended catch could be freed, and targeted animals could be killed sooner.
Jim Wagner, a Gustavus trapper, said he's never caught a pet or a child in 27 years of trapping. A quarter-mile buffer would close down 60 percent of the Gustavus area to trapping, he said.
"I feel somebody's trying to take something away from me that I've done for a long time," Wagner told the board Nov. 2. "What I do is not politically correct, and yet it's a way of life in Gustavus."
The Game Board prohibited thicker snares on land in Gustavus, so moose could break out of weaker snares. The panel also required that snares be identified, and that trapping gear be checked within every three days.
Except for an identification requirement for larger snare cables on land, the board declined to pass similar rules for all of Southeast. Members said it wasn't justified or practical.
The quarter-mile ban in the region "would shut down trapping in Southeast Alaska," said John George, speaking for the 1,200-member Territorial Sportsmen, a Juneau-based hunting and fishing group.
The state estimates no more than 200 people trap in Southeast, selling pelts worth about $200,000 a year. But for many trappers, it's a recreational activity and a way of life, said Jack Whitman, a trapper and state wildlife biologist in Sitka.
In a split vote, the board turned down a proposal to prohibit baiting of black bears in Southeast. But on a 5-1 vote it did ban baiting within a mile of some roads in Haines.
Opponents of bear baiting say it accustoms bears to human food, leading them to become nuisances in towns, and it's an unfair way to catch an animal.
There are about 30 bait stations in Haines, the state said. Hunters typically bait them with food ranging from donuts to syrup-covered dry dog food to fish parts, and periodically wait for bears to show up.
The state Department of Fish and Game opposed a regional ban on baiting black bears. Baiting allows hunters to attract bears in heavily wooded areas and be more selective in their catch, said Deputy Director Matt Robus.
Hunting groups said bear baiting is the only way for young or disabled hunters to catch black bears. And some people hunt black bears for food, so concerns about fair chase wouldn't apply, added board member Maier.
But board member Lentfer said, "I think we have ethical and fair-chase components to this debate. There is widespread opposition by hunters to the general practice."
Board member Bennett said, "I feel deeply about the hunting tradition and defending it."
He favored a ban on bear-baiting, saying he wanted to create a hunting climate that the nonhunting public can accept.
"I think that's the increasing challenge," he said.
Bennett, Lentfer and Van Ballenberghe voted to ban bear baiting. Ben Grussendorf of Sitka, Rob Hardy of Wasilla and Maier voted against the ban.
The five board members who haven't been confirmed by the Legislature are Van Ballenberghe, Bennett, Lentfer, Hardy and Towarak. Maier's term expires in March, before the next board meeting, and Grussendorf's term ends in March 2004.