Homer Alaska - Opinion

Story last updated at 6:46 PM on Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Wolf plan vs. Democracy

Amendment to Alaska Constitution, state statutes needed to make sure wildlife management based on science

By Hal Shepherd

Anyone who attended grade school in the United States probably remembers stories of the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, the U.S. Constitution and the idealistic principles the county was built upon. In fact, these products of the American Revolution so well encompassed the progressive ideals of the time that they are often referred to as the ultimate achievement of the 18th century's philosophical and spiritual movement referred to as the "age of enlightenment."

One of the privileges of being a United States citizen is to observe the unique principles of progressive ideas and democracy invented by the Founding Fathers, actually put into practice in governmental decision making. In the wildlife management area, one of these milestones occurred in the 1940s when Aldo Leopold, who was employed by the newly created U.S. Forest Service, introduced the novel idea that overzealous removal of predators from the ecosystem not only does not, necessarily, increase populations of those species upon which the wolves are preying, but can actually result in harm to habitat, and therefore lower numbers of game species for human hunters.

One cannot help but notice the irony, therefore, that the film "Green Fire" about Aldo Leopold's career was shown in Homer within days of the release of a proposal by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game which seems to revise the game management the game management strategy that "the only good wolf is a dead wolf" that Leopold fought so hard to eliminate more than 60 years ago.

The proposal, which calls for aerial hunting of wolves, allegedly to increase moose numbers outside of Homer, has left both wildlife management experts and the public scratching their heads as to why the Alaska Board of Game and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game wants to reduce wolf populations in the game management units in questions, when the ADF&G expressly admits that habitat degradation due to lack of fire and other factors, not predation, is the primary cause of moose population decline in the units.

Not only is the proposal highly unlikely to meets its own stated objectives, but it, apparently, throws out Aldo Leopold's emphasis on the importance of predators to game habitat management, a principle long ago adopted by just about every college textbook on wildlife management (some of which Leopold, himself, wrote).

Of broader concern is the threat that the proposal presents to those progressive democratic principles that Americans are all so proud of. The Board of Game's decision, for example, to hold the Nov. 11-14 meeting in which it will decide whether to implement the proposal in Barrow (which couldn't be further away from the communities that will actually be affected) and failing to provide the public the requisite 30 day notice of the decision prior to the meeting, at best, reveal the rushed nature of the proposal and, at worst, could be interpreted as an attempt to keep a highly controversial issue away from public scrutiny.

More importantly, the board's history of decision making which often has everything to do with politics and nothing to do with science is a direct result of the board's membership, which is exclusively dominated by hunters, trappers, hunting guides or persons representing those interests.

Thus, even though these groups make up only about 25 percent of the adult population in Alaska, the board's decisions have consistently favored them.

In an effort to change the unbalanced composition of the board's membership, in the summer of 2003, environmental groups sued the Alaska Board of Game, the commissioner of the Department of Fish and Game and the governor of Alaska.

The lawsuit was based on the claim that the board's membership make-up violates the common use and uniform application sections of Alaska Constitution and a state statute which encourages the governor to consider "diversity of interest and points of view." The Alaska Superior Court, however, dismissed the complaint claiming that it presented a political rather than a legal question and, therefore, under the court's interpretation, did not violate the Constitution or the statute.

Unfortunately, therefore, the only hope for ensuring that the board is representative of a cross-section of the Alaska public and, therefore, to ensure that predator control proposals are, once again based in science, is an amendment to the state Constitution and statutes to stop domination of the board by the hunting and trapping industry and similar interests. We have to ask ourselves whether it is worth it to reinstate principles of democracy into, at least, a small corner of government decision making.

Hal Shepherd is a resident of Fritz Creek and the principal consultant and president of Laoch Consulting, also based in Fritz Creek.