Predator control advocates should learn that myths are no match for facts

Monday, 04 December 2017, 05:29:23 AM. Recent piece by Fish & Game commissioner perpetuates false notion that it's ignorant outsiders who oppose extreme predator control. Actually, in two elections most Alaskans voted against it.

Sam Cotten's Nov. 30 Commentary ("Florida protesters schooled in Native ways at Alaska Board of Game meeting") perpetuates a long-standing myth created by promoters of extreme predator control programs — namely, that if only those who oppose such controversial programs knew "the facts" they would change their minds and support predator control. Furthermore, the myth claims those who oppose extreme predator control are mainly outside animal rights advocates who oppose hunting and do not understand how Alaska manages wildlife.

Mr. Cotten described a learning process at a recent Game Board meeting where a group of Florida protesters interacted with Native students and as a result apologized and withdrew support for their proposals to prohibit taking black bears in dens, cubs and sows with cubs. One board member was quoted as saying the Florida group was going back home to educate other people about what was really happening in Alaska.

As a former Game Board member and one who has been involved in these issues for over 40 years, I've heard the voices of hundreds of Alaskans, many of them hunters, who opposed widespread aerial shooting of wolves by private pilots, helicopter shooting of bears and wolves by Fish and Game biologists, and gassing wolf pups in dens. They opposed intensive management programs that included trapping of bears, baiting brown bears, same-day airborne hunting of bears, shooting female bears and cubs and sale of bear body parts. By any standard, these methods would be considered extreme. Predictably, many Alaskans were dismayed when, in recent years, the Game Board aggressively applied these increasingly controversial intensive management practices over much of the state, and thousands of wolves and bears were killed as a result.

[How truth can survive the Alaska predator-control war]

Alaskan opponents mobilized early on and in 1996 and again in 2000, ballot measures sponsored by Alaskans restricting aerial shooting of wolves passed by large margins. Alaska's resident voters passed these measures, not outside groups.

In 2005, a letter of concern signed by over 100 scientists went to Gov. Frank Murkowski requesting that predator control programs incorporate sound science. A similar letter signed by even more scientists went to Gov. Sarah Palin.  And an organization of professional biologists twice passed resolutions urging the same. Those who signed the letters and drafted the resolutions were scientists, not animal rights advocates.

As a biologist who has studied moose and wolves since 1967, I think I know some of the biological facts. My fellow biologists know them too. In 2010 a respected biologist who studied the effects of predator control on moose and caribou in the Yukon for 18 years concluded that broad-scale wolf control "… has limited benefits to prey populations, it does not last, and should be relegated to the past along with poison and bounties."

My own analysis of statewide moose harvests before and after aggressive intensive management showed no significant increase in harvests as a result of reducing predators by a wide variety of extreme methods. Nor did intensive management result in larger moose harvests despite an increase of 5,000 hunters per year on average during aggressive management programs.

Recently published studies by state and federal biologists on the Fortymile Caribou Herd in the eastern Interior concluded that both nonlethal and lethal wolf control were ineffective as methods of increasing caribou numbers in this herd. Growth of the herd from 6,000 to 52,000 during 1973-2014 could not be attributed to either form of control. In fact, the herd increased at its lowest rate during years of lethal control. And negative effects of high caribou density and reduced food resources at the current herd size indicate that wolf control should cease.

[Congress and Trump revoked the predator-control ban in Alaska's refuges. Now what?]

Given these facts, what do the Fortymile Herd's managers now propose? They plan to again reduce wolf numbers by helicopter shooting this winter despite knowing it will not work to increase caribou and will likely again kill wolves living mostly in Yukon-Charley National Preserve where past wolf control disrupted long-term studies by federal biologists.

A caribou of the Fortymile Herd. (Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game) A caribou of the Fortymile Herd. (Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game)

The results of the Fortymile Herd studies combined with those from other areas demonstrate that caribou can increase absent wolf control, that wolf control sometimes does not work, that expensive, long-term field studies are necessary to justify, conduct, monitor and evaluate predator reductions, and that caribou herds can reach high densities and crash after damaging their habitat. Hopefully, the Game Board will learn from past mistakes and apply the lessons learned from the recent studies.

So it's encouraging that a group of Florida protesters interacted with Native students and Game Board members and learned about customary and traditional patterns of subsistence use of black bears. But I think it's more important to know that, contrary to the myth, many Alaskans have already learned the facts and as a result they oppose the extreme intensive management methods the state has used to reduce bear and wolf numbers. They also are learning that intensive management sometimes doesn't work, that past programs had serious flaws, that predator control is very expensive and that maybe we need to re-evaluate the whole concept. Perhaps it's actually those who support extreme predator control measures who should learn the facts and change their minds.

Vic Van Ballenberghe is a moose and wolf biologist and former Board of Game member. He lives in Anchorage.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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