Photo: Christoph Strässler / Flickr
The words “predator control” sound benign and well-intentioned, but in Alaska, they carry a cruel meaning. The term refers to gruesome tactics like gunning down wolves and bears from airplanes; slaughtering wolves, coyotes and their pups in dens; live trapping that results in slow, painful deaths; killing animals and leaving their young to die; and shooting bears over bait.
The thinking is that by reducing the number of apex predators, populations of prey animals that Alaskans rely on for sustenance and hunting revenue — like caribou, elk and moose — will surge.
Under President Obama, both the National Park Service (NPS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) banned many of these controversial predator control practices in their parks and refuges. Alaska — which already uses these grisly means to manage wildlife on more than 75,000 square miles of land — responded by suing both agencies.
But on Monday, the state dropped the portion of its lawsuit targeting the USFWS after President Trump signed a Republican law reversing the Obama-era bans (which still remain in national parks), opening the door for brutal tactics like aerial gunning to be used on national wildlife refuges in Alaska.
The state’s Congressional delegation insists this is not a matter of animal welfare, choosing instead to paint the legislation as a defense of sovereignty meant to guard against federal overreach. Alaskans, they argue, should decide how to manage Alaska’s wildlife — not Washington.
The problem with their argument is that national wildlife refuges are public lands owned by you, me and all Americans — not just those residing nearby. Alaska, a state that already enjoys special exemptions from the Antiquities Act, doesn’t manage refuges — the federal government does.
But let’s not turn this into another public lands debate. Nor is it a crusade against hunting. It is important to recognize that in Alaska, “management of fish and wildlife is practically sacrosanct” according to one of the state’s senators, Republican Lisa Murkowski.
While the debate surrounding these rules is tinged with Alaska’s resentment of federal power, the issue boils down to one of money. According to a report commissioned by the state’s Division of Wildlife Conservation, consumers spent $3.4 billion on hunting and wildlife viewing in 2011, generating $4.1 billion in economic activity and supporting 27,000 jobs. “While it’s not surprising that wildlife is important economically, the scale is amazing,” Alaska Fish & Game writes on its website.
It’s obviously in the state’s interest to ensure healthy herds of prey animals to keep hunters spending money, but also to keep its population fed. And that’s Alaska’s right — the issue is the way the state, particularly the Board of Game, is doing it.
Science has once again been cast aside.
For starters, predators rarely decimate prey populations on their own — there are usually other factors involved. In fact, studies show that killing predators can trigger an unsustainable boom in prey populations, leading to habitat loss, overpopulation, disease and starvation. Furthermore, critics question the accuracy of population estimates used to justify the violent destruction of predators. In a letter to Governor Walker, the Alaska Wildlife Alliance lays out these concerns and many others.
In 1997, the National Academy of Science’s National Research Council (NRC) released a scathing report reviewing Alaska’s predator control practices. It not only found that the bloody management tactics used by the state were not based on adequate science, but also that the programs were implemented so sloppily and haphazardly that it was all but impossible to measure their effectiveness. The NRC went on to recommend a data-driven, scientific approach that erred on the side of more humane management strategies. Since then, the Board of Game has done little to heed their advice, choosing instead to expand the practices criticized in the report.
Why? There are many alternatives, including habitat enhancement, tranquilizing and relocating animals, sterilizing animals, diverting animals with food and, in general, collecting more data and applying it to the decision-making process.
The problem is all those other methods are more time-consuming, tedious and expensive than crawling into dens and slaughtering families of vulnerable animals.
Alaska’s Board of Game, serving the state economy first and foremost, has decided to bypass science in favor of violence and death. At best, this is wayward management driven by resentment and desperation. At worst, it will have irreversible consequences on Alaska’s unique ecology.
One of the guiding principles of the USFWS is to “subscribe to the highest standards of scientific integrity and reflect this commitment in the design, delivery and evaluation of all our work.” It is no wonder then that they are at odds with Alaska over the state’s predator control policies, which are sloppy, short-sighted and unscientific.
It has never been more important to live in harmony with our natural environment. Alaska, graced by nature’s awe like no other state, should understand this. It would be wise to drop the remainder of its lawsuit against the NPS and abandon cruel, predator control practices in favor of more sustainable and humane alternatives backed by science.