The federal government used tax payer dollars to kill tens of thousand of coyotes (which we now know are little more than skinny wolves) along with hundreds of bears and full-grown wolves last year, but decided Thursday that such predator control practices are simply not acceptable in a big chunk of the country’s 49th state even if provided free by Alaska and Alaskans.
The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service declared 73 million acres of Alaska off-limits to predator control. Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe went online at the Huffington Post to blog about it, claiming the late American folk hero Woody Guthrie would be proud.
“Woody Guthrie captured something essential about our nation when he penned the classic American song, “This Land is Your Land” more than 75 years ago,” Ashe wrote. “He understood that one of America’s best ideas – and one of our defining values – was the decision to set aside some of our most wildlife-rich lands and waters for permanent protection for the benefit of all Americans.
“Sadly, as it was in Woody’s day, this treasured American value is under assault.”
Ashe somehow sees a difference between what Alaska allows to happen at no expense to federal taxpayers on wild lands in the north and what the federal government pays agents of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to do on wild and semi-wild lands in the lower 48 states.
APHIS, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reported killing almost 69,000 coyotes, nearly 400 wolves, and 480 bears last year. The death toll in Alaska didn’t even come close, which is not to say that there haven’t been abuses of the state’s so-called “intensive management” program.
There are plenty of wildlife biologists in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game who have questioned the use of predator control in situations in which habitat – not predators – appears to be the limiting factor on prey populations.
Ecology is not a black-and-white science. There are a lot of greys. Killing predators has been shown to increase prey in some cases and not in others. In the worst case scenario, predator control has been shown to boost prey to levels at which they over-use their habitat leading to a population crash from which it can take a long time to recover.
State management is by no means perfect.
And state biologists have sometimes been timid about speaking out on predator control programs they believe flawed. They say they fear for their jobs. It’s easy to empathize. Cowardice is a prevailing human trait.
As a result, there is no doubt the sort of open and wide-ranging debate that should influence the state Board of Game on predator control practices is lacking.
But there is also no longer any doubt that predator control can sometimes be a useful tool for increasing wildlife populations in Alaska.
The question is not whether it works, as Alaska biologists Rod Boertje and others observed in a 2010 paper published in the “Journal of Wildlife Management,” but “what society should value.”
Ashe made the societal call for the Fish and Wildlife Service and stuck his thumb in the eye of Alaskans in the process by blasting the state’s “shortsighted policies designed to benefit the few.”
This group was further defined as “a few people who would call themselves hunters.”
There is no doubt that hunters in Alaska sometimes benefit from increased populations of moose, caribou and Dall sheep due to predator control. Others, however, also benefit. Moose, caribou and Dall sheep are among the most viewed wildlife in Alaska.
It is hard, if not impossible, to grow predator populations to levels that make them easily viewed, although 40 years of the state managing salmon to record and near-record levels has boosted bear populations to numbers that make those animals easier for visitors to find and view.
At the same time, salmon-boosted grizzly populations and, in some cases, wolf populations, have increased predation on moose and caribou calves. There have been documented cases of bears managing to kill nearly all moose calves in some parts of the state in some years.
The situation is not nearly so simple as Ashe portrays in claiming the Fish and Wildlife Service wants to “emphasize sound, long-term land and wildlife stewardship for the current and future benefit of all . They will ensure that all wildlife – including predators – gets a fair shake on Alaska’s National Wildlife Refuges, for which Congress has assigned us primary authority. The state of Alaska’s predator control programs may be in line with its state mandates and programs, but they cannot be reconciled with the federal laws that guide us.”
The main problem with that statement is simply that nature isn’t “fair.” Never has been; never will be. Nature is a place where everyday the strong kill the weak or the simply unlucky. The workings of nature are blood and death. Nature is war.
Human politics, on the other hand, are power and money.
The federal government ever year kills tens of thousands of predators, predominately in the West, because monied ranching and farming interests have political power there. It opposes killing predators in Alaska because environmental organizations, which have made Alaska a focus of fund-raising for decades, hold power in the north.
The animals don’t care either way. Their world is a world where death is natural. They are all going to die sooner or later.
As you read this, it’s a given a young caribou or moose is dying at the fangs and claws of a bear or wolf, and a young wolf is starving because not enough moose and caribou are dying, and a cute cuddly bear cub is dying because the stream mom decided to cross was bigger than he could swim or because mom wandered into the path of a male bear who decided killing cubs would bring the sow into estrus again.
This is Alaska.
None of Alaska, however, enters the discussion of a decision that is simple to urban America.
“Feds to Alaska: Stop killing bears and wolves our on our land,” headlined the Washington Post.
“…There’s a booming ecotourism business in Alaska, and people go to these parks and refuges because they want to see the animals,” the Post’s Karen Brulliard quoted Wayne Pacelle, the president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States saying. “When you shoot them…you diminish the numbers of animals and the experiences of people who trek to Alaska to have the thrill of a lifetime.”
Oh if only it were so simple.
Alaska’s past response to this sort of thinking has been to flail away at the faraway power making decisions as the Post noted in citing “former Alaska governor Sarah Palin: gunning down wildlife from helicopters.”
The state response so far this time appears to be to do nothing, which has stirred the ire of some.
“Fish and Wildlife came on top of the 20 million acres already taken by the U.S. Park Service just a few months ago. In October, the Park Service overrode Alaska regulations pertaining to fish, wildlife and, specifically, to predator control. The Bureau of Land Management jumped in on the action and took yet another million acres in the Fortymile Area last month,” wrote Suzanne Downing at MustReadAlaska.com.
“Nearly 100 million acres gone from state management in six months. The state of Alaska has fought this in the past because comprehensive management of fish and game is, quite clearly in law, a state right promised by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA).
“But in 2016, the state seems to have lost its will to fight the federal government on just about anything.”
The last statement may or may not be true, but it is clear that Alaska – a state which was born in large part on the desire to wrest fisheries management from the hands of territorial overlords – has over the pas 30 years ceded more and more fish and wildlife management authority to a federal bureaucracy which has one view of Alaska and another view of the other 49 states.
Maybe Alaska tourism could at least get some benefit out of this with a new marketing program.
Visit Alaska: America’s biggest national park.