Saturday, March 18, 2006

Predator control takes a big bite; wildlife managers come up short

Peter Dunlap-Shohl- Anchorage Daily News

The state Division of Wildlife Conservation has concentrated a lot of its resources and energy the past three years on predator-control programs -- basically killing wolves to increase the number of moose available for hunters. As division director Matt Robus points out, that work has forced cutbacks in other wildlife survey efforts and has even left the division short of what it may need to gather needed scientific data on the effectiveness of wolf- and bear-control work.

That's no way for the state to invest in its wildlife.

Biologist positions are going unfilled, regular moose population surveys have been cut back, and Mr. Robus says surveys that were done every two years are now on three- or four-year schedules.

Field work is expensive. Aircraft, fuel, biologists, moose collars, radio gear, programmers and thorough data entry add up. At the same time the Board of Game has intensified predator control, the division has watched costs rise and revenues dwindle. In the past, the division was almost self-sustaining, with license fees and federal funding. But right now, Mr. Robus says, it can't afford to do the work to provide up-to-date, reliable information about much of Alaska's wildlife population.

In 2005, the division sought legislative permission to raise hunting license fees. That proposal went nowhere. Lawmakers saw a ticket to unpopularity, and hunters wondered why they should pay more for what many say is less opportunity to hunt.

In 2006, any such proposal is deader than it was in 2005. This is an election year.

That has left Mr. Robus and the governor asking the Legislature for a $3 million increase in state general funds for the division. So far, a House Finance subcommittee has said no, recommending only continuation of funding.

"The division is plenty motivated to provide more hunting opportunities," Mr. Robus says. But without good information -- the kind that comes from intensive, rigorous field work -- "the Board of Game is forced to be very conservative" in setting allowable harvests.

"The better the information, the further the board can go to the margins of providing maximum opportunity," the division director says.

Consistent field work gives the division the chance to spot problems with wildlife populations early. And field research, done over time and systematically, may tell how effective or not wolf control has been in boosting game opportunities for subsistence and sport hunters.

Wildlife conservation has never been as precise a science as mathematics. But without extensive field work, the Game Board and all other Alaskans are left with guesswork, bias and anecdotes. That's not a sound basis for decisions about bag limits, seasons and other regulations aimed at sustainable yield and healthy populations of animals.

No matter how Alaskans feel about the fiercely contested issue of predator control and how to do it, they should be united in providing our wildlife managers with the means to gain good information. Alaska's wildlife is the nation's most magnificent. If that takes an additional $3 million in state funds, let's make the investment.

BOTTOM LINE: Wildlife managers can't do the job without the means -- and they're managing a treasure that should outlast oil, gold, zinc or coal.

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