Palin, politics, and Alaska predator control

  • Members of the Grant Creek wolf pack close in on a moose and her newborn calf in Denali National Park. In the end, the wolves got the baby moose.

  • Wolf control efforts in Alaska.

    (c) Alaska Department of Fish and Game
  • Caribou on the Arctic tundra with the Endicott Mountains of the Brooks Range in the background.

  • A grizzly bear sow and cubs approach caribou in Denali National Park .

  • Setting a bear snare.

    (c) Alaska Department of Fish and Game
  • Groups against aggressive predator control have used advertising, lawsuits and public-records searches -- turning up photos like these showing wolf-control efforts -- to sway public opinion. Photos show dead wolves slung from a helicopter and other fresh kills being handled on the ground.

    (c) Alaska Department of Fish and Game
  • Sarah Palin's book Going Rogue, on sale at a Sitka, Alaska, bookstore with a note that all profits would go to Defenders of Wildlife to stop aerial wolf hunting.

    James Poulon, Daily Sitka Sentinel/AP
  • Corey Rossi, working on avian flu testing, did predator control for the federal government, and now runs the Division of Wildlife Conservation for Alaska.

    (c) Alaska Department of Fish and Game
  • Ted Spraker (in blue) was part of a crew in the late 1990s moving wolves in an attempt to keep them from killing caribou on the Alaska Range.

    Jon Little, Anchorage Daily News, AP
  • Counting caribou from the air.

    (c) Alaska Department of Fish and Game

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Palin, however, repeatedly blamed outsiders for stirring the controversies. "People outside Alaska are often clueless (about) why our biologists need responsible tools for abundant game management," she said in her 2009 book, Going Rogue: An American Life. "We had to control predators ... that were decimating the moose and caribou herds that feed our communities."

The opposition to aerial gunning includes hundreds of scientists who've signed a series of letters denouncing the practice. A 2007 letter by 172 members of the Society of Mammalogists, for instance, asked Palin to "consider conservation of predators on an equal basis with the goal of producing more ungulates for hunters." On the website of Connecticut-based Friends of Animals, Alaskan author Marybeth Holleman called Palin's methods a relapse back to "our nation's frontier-days prosecution of predators."

Palin's most controversial legacy, perhaps, stems from her appointment of Denby Lloyd as commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in 2006. Lloyd proceeded to name a friend of Palin's family, Corey Rossi, as the "assistant commissioner for abundance management" (a newly created job) in December 2008 and then promoted Rossi to run the Division of Wildlife Conservation (one of the highest positions within Fish and Game) in March 2010. Before joining the Fish and Game Department, Rossi spent 20 years killing predators for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, including stints as a contractor and ultimately as a manager of that agency's lethal effort in Alaska. Rossi lacks a college degree, but says he's learned on the job and taken some relevant college courses. He also used to make money as a hunting guide and had ties to Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife. He listed Palin's parents as the top references on his résumé and says he actually employed them for about 15 years; Palin reportedly pushed for his recruitment to the state's wildlife management effort. The previous director of Wildlife Conservation -- a position that oversees 160 seasonal employees and a $20 million budget, with a mission of encouraging public involvement -- was Doug Larsen, a 22-year veteran of wildlife conservation with biology degrees from the University of Idaho and the University of Alaska.

Lloyd also named Patrick Valkenburg -- who, like Rossi, is an outspoken advocate for both bear-snaring and aerial gunning -- deputy game commissioner in December 2008. A 34-year veteran of the Department of Fish and Game, Valkenburg has decades of experience in surveying and analyzing wildlife populations. He's also a hunter and trapper and has served on the board of the Alaska Outdoor Council.

Thirty-nine former Division of Wildlife Conservation biologists or supervisors, including Vic Van Ballenberghe -- each of them averaging about 20 years of experience -- formally protested Rossi's promotion in a March 2010 letter, saying: "We are deeply concerned about the direction the Division is heading in managing Alaska's wildlife resources. Those concerns have been highlighted by the recent appointment of Mr. Corey Rossi as Director of the Division ... Mr. Rossi appears to be a single-issue advocate who lacks the educational background necessary for an entry-level biologist position ... A background with federal animal control does not qualify Mr. Rossi to lead an organization of professional wildlife biologists, research scientists, biometricians, and other wildlife professionals."

Fourteen more retired Division biologists added their names to the letter in April 2010. According to the biologists, Rossi's appointment signaled a shift in the department to "simplistic abundance management (in which) maximum production of wild game meat is the ... single, overriding objective." They said that "science, rather than politics, should be the guiding philosophy of professional leadership" and "an effective Director must also be able to lead the Division in matters such as habitat protection, biodiversity conservation, endangered species management, and watchable wildlife."

If there's one thing everyone seems to agree on, it's that Corey Rossi is a likable fellow. He's tall and lean, with a salt-and-pepper handlebar moustache and a friendly, easygoing demeanor. I saw him at the October Board of Game meeting, which lasted three days in a stuffy conference room at the Coast Hill Inn in Anchorage, and later we talked for several hours in phone interviews. He joins Valkenburg and Ted Spraker, a three-term member of the Board of Game, in defending the state's recent ramping up of predator-control efforts, including the aerial gunning and "land-and-shoot" that are now used in six rural areas that constitute about 10 percent of the state.

Rossi says Palin backed him because of his qualifications: "She was very well acquainted with who I was and what I did (in federal predator control work). I don't want to sound flippant, but this wasn't like Sarah Palin had a friend who was a taxi driver and said, 'I'm going to create a cush job.' She knew someone that happened to be an expert on these topics. ... I'd appreciate if you'd help us to bring some common sense and rational thought and objectivity and not just continue the sensationalism and stirring the pot. We understand that certain people will never like predator control. I don't mock them, I don't hate them. I'm tasked with managing for multiple uses," and that includes boosting prey populations where people desire it.

In response to the biologists' claims that his agency takes actions without sound science, Rossi points out that the Department of Fish and Game has posted more than a hundred studies on its website, supporting the need for his methods. Spraker -- a 28-year veteran of Fish and Game -- made a similar point during the board meeting, explaining why he believes a slim majority of Alaska voters now seems to favor aerial gunning: "Let me tell you why sentiment changed. The only time the public is going to support something like this is if you show good science."

Valkenburg says that until wolves were reintroduced in the Lower 48, Alaska was the only place in the U.S. with a full complement of predators. "So the work we did in Fish and Game was groundbreaking in figuring out relationships between wolves and moose and caribou. Biologists in general are not exposed to that literature. Most were trained during a time when people thought predation was not an important influence on ungulate populations. In Alaska, we've found that ungulate populations are limited by predators, but most biologists have a very strong bias in the opposite direction. Biologists are no different than any other group of people -- they have their values and their biases, and so, a lot of it is a philosophical debate, not a scientific debate. Many biologists just don't feel that it's legitimate to shoot wolves or bears or reduce wolf and bear numbers to make more moose for people to eat. But ultimately it's a policy decision. It's not a scientific decision."

All three men cite cases where, in their view, aggressive killing of predators has dramatically helped moose and caribou. In Game Unit 20A, which includes the Tanana Flats south of Fairbanks, predator control has had a "long, lingering" positive effect for both predator and prey, Rossi says. The agency began a campaign of aerial wolf killing there in February 1976, on behalf of a moose population that had steeply declined; by April 1982, it had removed 337 wolves (174 by Fish and Game, 163 by private hunters). The moose population increased from 2,500 to 6,600, and caribou went from 2,200 to 7,335. Another round of wolf control in the 1990s allowed the moose population to increase to 15,000. With more prey to feed on, the wolf population eventually rebounded to slightly higher levels than before the effort began. "We removed the predators, and the moose bounced back to the point that we now have more moose than we need," says Rossi. "When we scaled back predator control, the wolves rebounded, too. Now we have a balance of both prey and predators but at a higher yield."

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