My Turn: Reactionary wildlife management

Posted: Sunday, November 17, 2002

The recent Board of Game meeting provided an education that was almost worth a couple of days not spent in the woods. Public testimony from all perspectives was excellent, but public deliberation was sorely lacking on Proposal 3 to close Douglas Island to wolf trapping and hunting. I'd hoped to watch members weigh the difficult biological and legal questions of managing for a wolf population on a small island with high snowfall and only one major prey species that's already heavily exploited by a user group with legal protection. Instead, their discussion focused on the adequacy of proposed wolf protection measures and on public perception about wolves near pets and children.

Despite platitudes about not intending to unduly harm deer hunting, the board's thinking about the future of deer hunting once wolves become established is evident in the language of the new regulation. The wolf abundance threshold is set high enough and the allowable harvest rate low enough that wolves could increase to whatever limit they would socially tolerate even if the season were opened and trappers caught the allotted number. The regulation uses hunter success as a belated indicator of when the deer population is in trouble, but includes no objective to maintain hunting.

A drastic deer decline that might trigger wolf management is measured only against a 10-year moving average harvest and only with roughly equal hunting effort, indicating that the board anticipates a major and perhaps continuous decline in harvest and effort as wolves replace humans as consumers of deer.

Furthermore, limited harvest of wolves will only be allowed if the deer harvest falls more than 35 percent below the moving average for two consecutive years, plus time for estimation, which could delay action until a severe population decline becomes catastrophic. Finally, the plan seems to require management for wolves following a major deer decline for as long as they can catch enough deer, dogs and porcupines to survive on the island.

Establishment of wolves under this plan will cost human consumers more than just a moderate harvest reduction and some extra effort to find deer. A severe decline would lead not only to loss of deer as food but ultimately to loss of deer and wolves for potential viewing. Many of those who testified in favor of Proposal 3 clearly said they did not want to see the deer population and hunting decimated, just as many hunters expressed a willingness to accept some reduction in their success rate to allow for wolves.

The Board's lockstep role as Santa Claus for only one user group reflected a limited perspective on successful wildlife management. Broad public acceptance is important. Many people in Juneau believe that some wolves should be protected on the island. Many also treasure the food and recreational values that deer provide, and 700 Douglas deer hunters can hardly be considered a fringe group unworthy of a continued important stake in one of the more important accessible wildlife food resources in the state.

Furthermore, successful wildlife management requires consideration of biological and legal factors as well as political ones. If the objective is to sustain some wolves on a small, somewhat isolated patch of habitat like Douglas Island, the first problem is protecting them. Given more than a breeding pair, the main problem for sustainability shifts to limiting their abundance. Also, human consumption of deer has some limited protection over other uses in state law. A management plan that ignores these natural and human rules will fail when they come harshly into play.

The Board reinforced an erratic, reactionary cycle in Alaskan wildlife management that has persisted in recent years. I'm disappointed that members chose to amplify rather than dampen the cycle by contributing what amounts to a one-sided statement instead of a balanced solution to this difficult problem of evident concern to many.

To hunters who spent those beautiful early November days in the woods, you made the best use of your time in this case, but stay involved. I was proud of the respectful testimony of Juneau residents who took the time and effort to earnestly express their values and opinions on both sides of this issue.

Leon Shaul resides and hunts deer on Douglas Island.

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