AK Voices: Bill Sherwonit

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is the author of more than a dozen books, including "Living with Wildness" and "Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska’s Arctic Wilderness."

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Memo to Gov. Parnell: Change Is Needed in Alaska’s Wildlife Management

To Gov. Sean Parnell –

I like the fact that you’re refashioning state government so that it more closely reflects your image and imprint, rather than Sarah Palin’s. Your decision to replace many department heads and other appointees makes sense. This is especially true when it comes to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and its Division of Wildlife Conservation. The exit of F&G commissioner Denby Lloyd, one of those Palin appointees, gives you the opportunity to find someone who will restore much of the respect and credibility that the department has lost in recent years, not only among Alaskans but within the scientific community. Do whatever it takes to find a qualified and effective leader; go beyond Alaska if necessary. Certainly go beyond the state’s “sportsmen’s” circles, which have gained way too much political sway in Alaska's management of wildlife.

I also urge you to replace F&G deputy commissioner Pat Valkenburg and DWC director Corey Rossi. Both reflect the division’s highly politicized culture and its evolution, over the past decade, to what might more accurately be called the Division of Wild Game Farming, with its excessive emphasis on “intensive management” and predator control at all costs. Certainly you’re aware of the increasingly extreme methods the state has employed to “control” Alaska’s wolves and bears, so that hunters – many of them urban residents and guided nonresidents – have more moose and caribou to kill. I’m also sure you recognize it’s rarely about protecting subsistence opportunities, no matter what state wildlife managers insist.

It’s to your credit that you pressured the Alaska Board of Game to delay any action on a controversial proposal – pushed by F&G leadership – to allow the snaring of black bears (and inevitably some grizzlies) in large portions of Interior Alaska, just as the board deserves credit for postponing its consideration of the issue until the public can more fully comment on the proposed bear trapping. This is but one of the extreme measures that Valkenburg and Rossi have advocated, despite widespread opposition.

I’m sure you recall the controversy stirred by Lloyd’s appointment of Rossi last March as DWC director. More than 50 former F&G biologists or supervisors – with more than 1,000 years of state service among them – strongly urged Lloyd to reconsider that appointment. The March 20, 2010 letter stated, in part, “We are deeply concerned about the direction the Division is heading in managing Alaska’s wildlife resources. Those concerns have been heightened by the recent appointment of Mr. Corey Rossi as Director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation. Mr. Rossi appears to be a single issue advocate who lacks the education background necessary for an entry-level biologist position with the Division. . . .

“We are concerned that this high-profile leadership change is a signal that professional management will be replaced by a simplistic abundance management model where maximum production of wild game meat is the State of Alaska’s single, overriding objective. . . . Science, rather than politics, should be the guiding philosophy of professional leadership which should also include appropriate academic training and professional experience. Intensive management is only part of the responsibility of the Division of Wildlife Conservation, and an effective Director must also be able to lead the Division in other matters such as habitat protection, biodiversity conservation, endangered species management, and watchable wildlife.

“This appointment marks a departure from the standard of science-based management for which the Department has always been recognized. We believe this appointment will erode staff morale, result in resignations, reduce broad public support for state wildlife management, and potentially jeopardize some wildlife resources that the division manages for all citizens of the state. We urge you to keep the SCIENCE of wildlife management separate from the POLITICS of wildlife management. The science should be reserved to a professional staff with appropriate technical training, and the latter reserved to a politically appointed Game Board.

“In summary, we do not have confidence in the new leadership of the Division of Wildlife Conservation and urge you to reconsider this decision.”

Both Rossi and Valkenburg, as you know, have close ties to groups with an extreme predator-control agenda, namely the Alaska Outdoor Council and Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, Alaska Chapter. Again I must emphasize (like the former F&G employees, in their letter) that Alaskans deserve wildlife-management leadership that is based more on science than politics, and is considerably more balanced than it has been, in order to restore the confidence of an Alaskan public that values ALL of our state’s wildlife for a broad variety of reasons.

With Palin appointee Lloyd’s “retirement,” it’s time to continue cleaning house. In fact it’s way past time for such a change. Gov. Parnell, please do your part.

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