Commentary

Alaska shoots itself in the foot over fish and game on federal land

Rick Sinnott

January 20, 2016

OPINION: When Alaska understands that game management is more than hunting and trapping, we might regain control of that management on federal lands. Bob Hallinen

In op-ed pieces published in September and January, the former director of the Alaska Division of Wildlife Conservation decried federal overreach in the management of wildlife on national preserves and wildlife refuges.

Doug Vincent-Lang’s commentaries complained about recent National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulations that will pre-empt state hunting regulations on national preserves and refuges, lands managed by the federal agencies.

This is standard fare for Vincent-Lang, as it has been with other political appointees of former governors Frank Murkowski, Sarah Palin and Sean Parnell. Most of these appointees have followed the conservative agenda of their leaders, and some -- like Vincent-Lang -- seem to blame federal overreach for every conceivable failure in wildlife policy since at least 2002.

But federal overreach is a natural response to the state’s unwillingness to address public demand, as reflected in federal laws. The antithesis of “overreach” is “failure to grasp.” Hunters are a minority

Most Americans, even most Alaskans, are not hunters. Yet, in Vincent-Lang’s most recent article, he refers to the federal rule-making’s effects on “hunting” and “hunters” 12 times and fails to mention any other legitimate use of wildlife.

The number of hunters in the population can be measured in several ways. Less than 15 percent of Alaskans purchase hunting licenses annually; however, not every hunter buys a license every year. If you consider a longer time period -- five years is often used -- approximately 25 percent of Alaskans hunt.

Nationally, hunters are almost an endangered species. Only 4 to 5 percent of Americans buy hunting licenses annually, and about 7 percent bought hunting licenses during a recent five-year period.

In other words, about 75 percent of Alaskans and 93 percent of Americans don’t hunt.

That doesn’t mean most people are opposed to hunting. Far from it. What it means is that nonhunters -- whose ranks include birdwatchers and other wildlife-viewing enthusiasts -- should have a voice in how their wildlife is managed. I worked almost three decades for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and I can tell you that anyone who doesn’t hunt gets very little traction in the Board of Game’s so-called “public” process.

Federal law and federal agencies have been much more responsive to a public that is overwhelmingly not engaged in hunting. Even in Alaska federal agencies like the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife must follow the dictates of federal laws and court decisions.

The Alaska Board of Game is a misnomer, because all of Alaska’s wildlife are defined as “game” animals by law. Board members -- responsible for regulating hunting, trapping and a multitude of other wildlife-related issues -- are appointed by the governor. Appointees must be approved by the Legislature. Nevertheless, despite outnumbering hunters three to one, nonhunters have never been adequately represented on the board.

That’s a bit of an understatement. Only one or two of the 78 Alaskans appointed to the Board of Game since 1975 might not have been hunters. And I think it’s fair to say that no anti-hunters have served in the 55-year history of the board.

Although Vincent-Lang claims the board operates through “an open regulatory practice,” in reality the board acts like a schoolyard clique. They ostentatiously throw their arms around the shoulders of the hunting community but stiff-arm anybody who isn’t considered a member of the “team.” When previous governors have nominated Alaskans who have aligned themselves with nonhunting interests, even though they also hunted, a virtual firestorm erupted during the legislative confirmation.

Wildlife managers like me, who repeatedly reminded the board that most Alaskans weren’t hunters, were told to stick to biology. According to the board, it is the sole authority for allocating wildlife among user groups. But the board seldom listens to all of the public, just hunters. And trappers. And hunting guides and outfitters.

:I’m a hunter. I understand why hunters want to keep calling the shots. I’m not arguing for the appointment of anti-hunters to a board that spends most of its time creating, revising or replacing hunting regulations. That’s a recipe for gridlock. But nonhunters can and should be appointed. Wildlife management is not all about hunting, and hunters should be required to justify their near-monopoly of a public resource that’s in high demand.

Conflicting federal and state laws

Although he was the state’s chief wildlife manager for three years, Vincent-Lang apparently never grasped this elementary concept. His recent op-ed pieces show he remains earnestly engaged in the issue. They also demonstrate that he still doesn’t get it.

I’m a strong proponent of state’s rights, particularly when it involves wildlife management. Alaskans have forfeited management authority of endangered species and marine mammals. We have a voice in migratory bird management and subsistence hunting, but just barely. Now we’re losing control over the management of game animals on national preserves and wildlife refuges.

And we’re to blame. If Alaskan hunters would have accommodated some of the demands of other Americans, we might have retained more control over marine mammals, subsistence and hunting on federal lands. Although Alaskan hunters have long resented federal interference in our state’s wildlife management, I place most of the blame on a state law passed in 1994 -- the Intensive Management Act. This law requires state biologists to manage wildlife by increasing moose, caribou and deer numbers for the sole purpose of hunting. It has been the primary driver in wolf and bear “control” efforts.

This state law flies in the face of federal laws that require the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife to protect wildlife “in their natural diversity.” Federal managers get all riled up when the state proposes to kill off most of the wolves or bears in a national preserve or wildlife refuge, and rightfully so. They don’t have to kowtow to the idiotic state law that has turned state wildlife managers into moose and caribou wranglers.

In fact, according to federal law and court decisions, a state may only manage hunting on federal land until its management conflicts with federal law.

This legal stumbling block is not unknown to Vincent-Lang. He just chooses to ignore it. Which is why he keeps stumbling over it.

There are indications that the current governor has a broader perspective than the previous three administrations, but Gov. Bill Walker’s hands are tied by the intensive management law and the archaic notions of most legislators. Toward the end of his January commentary, Vincent-Lang declares “A more comprehensive strategy is needed.” He’s right there. The Alaska Legislature needs to acknowledge that most Alaskans are not hunters and address the egregious and longstanding unbalance by repealing the intensive management law and allowing the governor to appoint nonhunters to the Board of Game. Maybe in a few years, once Alaska proves it has a grasp on reality, the federal agencies will loosen their grip on federal lands.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist