My Turn: Alaska predator control based on wrong assumptions

Posted: Tuesday, November 29, 2005

I returned from the March 2004, Board of Game meeting where a play unfolded. This play began in 1900, when Nome had 12,000 residents, Skagway had 2,012 and Juneau had 1,456. The main occupation categories were hunters, guides, trappers and scouts, and just over 1 percent of the population worked in offices. The total population was 63,593, including 29,536 Alaska Natives.

Even back then, overhunting and predator control were big issues. Denali National Park was created primarily because hunters were decimating sheep. Elsewhere, looking for ways to eke more game from the harsh land, aerial hunting and poisoning began in the 1940s and 1950s. Poisoning ended with statehood in 1959, but aerial wolf control, including land-and-shoot, continued until 1994. These widespread efforts essentially turned parts of Alaska into moose and caribou feedlots.

Mother Nature yielded only so far, and the temporary explosion of game taxed habitat beyond what it could handle. Moose and caribou populations peaked and then crashed. Predators were blamed, and cries for control increased.

By 1998, Alaska's population grew to 621,400, with an Alaska Native population of 103,287 - only about 20 percent of the entire population. Whites comprised about 74 percent, numbering 459,463, and were heavily concentrated in Anchorage (258,782), Fairbanks (83,928), and Juneau (30,236).

When poisoning ended at statehood, and when aerial wolf control was banned in 1994, predator/prey populations began to return to their natural balance.

Then, under pressure from the Alaska Outdoor Council, the Legislature passed SB 77, the Intensive Management Game Law. This law mandates that when game numbers drop beyond what is desired for human harvest, predators will be killed. However, now human harvest desires included a never-ending number of Alaskan and international sport hunters.

Later, in cahoots with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the Board of Game took the historic, artificially high peak population numbers created after decades of aerial wolf control and poisoning and used those estimates to set population and harvest targets for each game management unit.

Protests to a Board of Game made up of only hunters and trappers were ignored.

Alaska's Constitution gives everyone equal access to game. Legislation makes all Alaskans subsistence hunters. Urban hunters have fought against a subsistence preference for rural Alaskans for decades. Why? Polls have shown that the public accepts predator control if done to meet true subsistence needs, so urban sport hunters, who are issued the vast majority of hunting licenses, want to continue to hide behind the subsistence label to maintain their favorite recreational activity unhindered and unchallenged.

Meanwhile, proof of overhunting abounds. Before the current predator-control program began, Fish and Game studies showed portions of 19D east had a bull-cow ratio of six per 100. A November 2001 trend count conducted along the Holitna and Hoholitna Rivers in 19A/B also verified bull-cow ratios of 6/100. In Unit 21D, bull-cow ratios in 3-Day Slough are 15/100. At the Nowitna River mouth, bull-cow ratios are 12/100, with two-thirds of those bulls being yearlings. Fish and Game's goal is 30 bulls per 100 cows in a hunted population.

All this brings us to the final act of the play. Our radical governor, Legislature and Department of Fish and Game and Board of Game now have what they worked for. Over the past two winters, authorized by a controversial predator control program, 419 wolves have been shot, with more in the crosshairs soon.

Thankfully, three ethical hunters are sponsoring a petition to keep Alaska's aerial predator control program in check and make it a last measure in a proven biological emergency, instead of a giveaway program to appease sport hunters.

Sign the petition.

• Anchorage resident Dorothy Keeler is a wildlife photographer.

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