Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Sarah Palin and Predator Control: An Insider's Take

I recently read an article in Salon about Sarah Palin's role in Alaska's controversial practice of aerial wolf shooting:

Her Deadly Wolf Program

The author's representation of the predator control program, while more accurate and sophisticated that any I have read elsewhere, seemed to leave out much of the story. I asked a friend of mine who works for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (the state management agency responsible for carrying out predator control, among other things) to clarify; here is his response:
"I do think the Salon article is accurate in what it says. The author is of course mostly interested in Ms. Palin, who is and has been quite vocal about her support of predator control - as both a concept and a practice. But the article's overview of our predator control history was a bit truncated and slightly misleading. It gives the impression that current predator control issues stem from the Murkowski and Palin administrations. Actually, it’s a long and complicated story.

Our current situation stems from the Intensive Management Act (IMA) of 1994, which came into being at the end of Hickel's last term and the beginning of Knowles' first term. The unofficial version of the story goes like this: the governor specifically disallowed the Fish & Game from giving any input on the IMA because he did not support it and fully expected it to die in the state legislature. It didn't. Instead it became law without any input from state biologists. Now the Board of Game - a politically-appointed group of non-biologists - is responsible for setting "population and harvest goals and seasons for intensive management of identified big game prey populations to achieve a high level of human harvest" (AS 16.05.255 (g)). So the unofficial story you hear within ADF&G circles is that state biologists' hands are tied by what many of them to be an overly-simplistic policy. If the governor had only let us shape the IMA in 1994, it is strongly implied, this would all be more scientific and less controversial. I've heard this version of the story from several different ADF&G biologists, quite literally from the highest levels down to seasonal technicians.

Just this summer I had a chance to chat with an Area Management Biologist from one of the highly controversial hunt areas (who for obvious reasons shall remain anonymous here). I asked him what specific biological input he thought would have made the IMA better - assuming it had to exist in the first place. He had some very interesting answers.

For one, he explained, the population thresholds for many of the ungulate herds exceed their habitats’ carrying capacity. One caribou herd has a goal of one-hundred thousand caribou, which is most probably impossible to maintain year after year. That many caribou, given the habitat they have, would quickly eat all the lichen in the area. The lichen would take thirty years to regenerate and in the meantime the caribou would be trying to survive without one of their primary food sources. Willow (another major food source for the caribou) regenerate quicker, but not if the caribou are all eating only willow because there is no more lichen to eat.

Second, he said, population size is a crude way to gauge population health. He suggested other population indicators such as sex-ratios, age-ratios, reproductive rates, diseases and habitat quality are more important management indicators. Focusing on these other indicators would help a biologist understand when predator control might be useful (again, assuming that one thinks it is ever useful or warranted) versus when it would be a moot point. A caribou herd, for instance, might drop below its threshold size due to a new parasite, a problem unrelated to how many wolves there are in the area. However, in this case he would still be called upon to kill wolves (in addition, I’m sure, to doing whatever he could about the disease itself). In a complex, dynamic ecosystem, predator control is a crude tool at best, and an irrelevant one at worst.

So while Sarah Palin is certainly a proponent of predator control, she is not its source - even in very recent history - nor was Frank Murkowski. There are lots of other misconceptions out there as well, which I won’t go into here or now. I just wanted to touch on some elements of the history of this controversial issue that might not have come to light elsewhere.

The ADF&G website has an "official" version of the predator control story of course, if you'd like to check that (one is wolf-specific, the other a general pamphlet; they do contradict each other a bit, though, which is embarrassing). The links are below, as well as a link to the relevant Alaska Statutes.

ADF&G's general history of predator control

ADF&G's predator control pamphlet

Alaska Statute 16.05.255

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