Alaska’s Wolf-Bear Killing Programs 5: Science and Biologists Awry
 
The wolf and bear killing continues at a high level in Alaska. I do not see much likelihood of stopping it until there is more focus on the underlying bad science and the biologists who promote it. Please read or re-read the February 18, 2008 blog entry.  All of it, including the last four sentences of the second paragraph, still applies and provides an introduction for this essay.
 
Note that I am changing the name of the series with the present entry, to more accurately reflect what is happening.  The state added black and brown bear killing via baiting and snaring to the established wolf-killing effort in Game Management Unit 16 recently.  It similarly added bear killing to the wolf killing in the McGrath area, although there had already been a major bear reduction in that area via translocation. Hidden and less formal bear reduction efforts have been underway in various areas for many years via liberal hunting regulations.  Despite assurances about leaving certain minimum populations of wolves and bears, guesswork about their numbers for the most part translates into killing as many as state biologists, hunters, and trappers can find in each area. “Control” softens what is really happening and credits the biologists with a degree of sophistication that is not there.
 
I begin with another discussion about the roles of biologists versus policymakers, then address the importance but gaping absence of meaningful peer review, and then suggest some additional remedies.  It is not my intent to delve much into the biological issues in this essay. For that, go to various links on the Reports page, especially March and May 2006, and to previous blog entries, especially February 18, 2008, March 15, 2008, July 17, 2008, and March 19, 2009. Watch for more of the biological details in upcoming entries.                    
 
Biologists and policymakers
A predisposed governor and unrepresentative Board of Game play substantial but secondary roles in the killing programs.  Ultimately these programs sell because Alaskans think they are based on good science - beginning with claims, almost always originating with field biologists, about this or that moose, caribou, moose-hunting, or caribou-hunting problem, or that killing wolves and bears will mean a moose- and caribou-hunting utopia.  
 
The biologists stir locals and tell other hunters and trappers, the policymakers, and the media that there is a problem, and most everyone, including many opponents of wolf- and bear-killing, uncritically accepts this as a premise.  In general, the alleged problems and their assumed wolf- and bear-killing solutions are then promoted up the chain and ultimately to the Board of Game policymakers and sometimes legislators.  The sequence typically proceeds in the opposite direction of what many killing opponents think - from the field biologists to the policymakers, not the other way around.  Biologists are an especially potent force in generating this momentum in Alaska because they also fill the agency (Dept. of Fish and Game) management and supervisory positions, from bottom to top.      
 
The governor appoints the seven members of the Board of Game (to staggered 3-year terms) but otherwise usually gets involved only tangentially if at all.  Most of the current killing programs began under Gov. Frank Murkowski, whose background was as a banker.  They have continued and expanded under Gov. Sarah Palin, whose training was as a journalist.  Neither of these governors, no matter how predisposed, could have sold the killing programs to Alaskans as good science without the initiative and support of state biologists.  The powerful Alaska Outdoor Council wields major influence, especially with Palin and the legislature.  AOC is and always has been run largely by retired and active state biologists.  The same is true for other influential anti-wolf organizations.  For example, the current president of the Alaska Trappers Association is a recently retired state wildlife biologist.  Indeed, two of the seven Board of Game members appointed by Gov. Murkowski were retired state wildlife biologists; one is still serving and heavily influences board deliberations.
 
As for the belief that the wolf killing is now worse than ever because of Palin and Murkowski and their biased board appointments, consider this:  The total number of wolves killed annually for the most part has remained at 1,000-1,500 or higher - including an informed estimate of the sizable unreported kill - under every governor in the history of Alaska (read the March 19, 2009 blog entry in interpreting this).  There has been heavy aerial hunting of wolves (along with other heavy wolf killing) under every governor in the history of Alaska, much of it referred to in deceptive ways such as “aerial trapping” and “land-and-shoot.”  Tony Knowles was an enlightened wildlife governor, but the heavy killing continued even during his years - including land-and-shoot wolf hunting until 1996 and in the so-called non-lethal Fortymile wolf sterilization/translocation program and preceding private wolf bounty-killing effort from 1996-2001.
 
Much the same applies at the federal level, as should now be obvious to any opponents of delisting who assumed that a new, environmentally-inclined President and his Secretary of the Interior would ignore Interior’s biologists (March 19, 2009 blog entry).  
 
Consider the findings and implementation plans that the statutes require the Alaska Board of Game to provide for each killing program.  Go to the Reports page for an example at the January 2006 link.  This is the “emergency” regulation that restarted the current killing programs after they were halted for a couple of weeks by a court challenge.  It is full of detailed biological arguments that state biologists alone provided.  No realistic person will read this and go away imagining it was the work of policymakers or that the biologists were pressured into generating arguments they did not believe.        
 
The January 2006 regulation was refined, expanded, and upgraded from emergency status at the May 2006 Board of Game meeting.  At that meeting, one state biologist after another went before the board with PowerPoint presentations, pitching their views as to the biological justification and success to date of each killing program.  What left one of the strongest impressions on me was the way the area biologists almost seemed to be competing to claim the largest number of wolves killed in each of their areas.  Before showing their charts, graphs, and other data, several of them even began their presentations with photos of aerial hunters posing next to their ski planes with bloodied wolves they had just shot, much like the photo at the top of the February 18, 2008 blog entry.  
 
This example is not unique to the current killing programs.  The same, dominant thread - biologists pushing their “science” - has prevailed for the 43 years I have watched and involved myself in the process. In addition to my own wolf-prey research in several of the killing areas and Denali National Park, this includes observing state biologists over extended periods of time in the field during their killing and related activities (e.g., March 1999 link on Reports page), participating in the necropsies (in their Fairbanks lab) of 123 of the wolves they killed, and listening and replying to their courtroom testimony.  It also includes listening to them regularly at Board of Game meetings, in the media, at conferences, and reading their reports and publications.
 
Thus I strongly disagree with wolf- and bear-killing opponents who insist that the policymakers are ignoring the biologists or forcing them into this; sometimes it happens that way, but uncommonly - more often for the bear killing than the wolf killing.  I question the sympathy extended to other state biologists who are afraid to speak out.  My reply in the latter case is that speaking out when science is used in a dubious way to justify a major killing program is integral to being a professional, even if this means risking a job.  Advocacy on the part of professionals is especially important in the conservation and related sciences (e.g., see the special section on advocacy in the June 1996 issue of Conservation Biology).  
 
Nor do I agree that a more representative Board of Game (“Board of Wildlife”) would be the solution, certainly not without better science from the biologists.  As indicated, past experience shows that if there is enough bad science afoot, it is likely to prevail no matter who is governor or who he or she appoints to the board.
 
The importance of external peer review  
Most scientists would agree that if science is to be used to promote something as serious as a large scale agency killing program, it should first survive stringent external peer review. Although Alaska biologists and policymakers regularly tout their wolf- and bear-killing programs as “sound science,” the biologists go out of their way to avoid the very peer review that promotes good science, and the process shields them from it.
 
My own experience during the state’s formulation of the current killing programs illustrates the point, and other scientists could relate similar experiences.  Refer again to the enabling state regulation at the January 2006 link on the Reports page.  Then read my March 2006 and May 2006 technical reviews (Reports page), which I provided to the Board of Game in the required manner.  I was allowed the standard five minutes to comment during the public hearing portion of the board’s March 2006 meeting; no oral testimony was allowed at the May 2006 meeting. There was extensive input from state biologists but no discussion or even the briefest mention of my written reviews during the board’s deliberations at the March and May 2006 meetings.  I provided similar reviews on many occasions over the previous 30 years (several are linked in the “Other areas” section of the Reports page), but nowhere in the transcripts of the board’s meetings will anyone find even the briefest mention of these either.
 
The failure of the board to consider the March and May 2006 reviews was one of the counts in a March 2007 court challenge to the killing programs (see the March 2007 affidavit on the Reports page).  The judge ruled in the state’s favor in March 2008, and on numerous occasions since then state biologists have claimed that he reaffirmed their science.  That is not what he did.  He cited the same case law that previous judges used to brush aside the issue, concluding that the court does not have the authority to substitute other expert interpretations for the state’s expert interpretations in resource matters.  He did not conclude anything in his ruling about the scientific merit of the state’s versus my or anyone else’s interpretations.
 
Meaningful review of a proposed killing program should allow detailed written commentary from any interested scientist or scientific organization and include a structured sequence of responses and rejoinders.  Most important, there should be a permanent online record of all of these comments and the identities of the state biologists who are involved, for unrestricted use in its entirety by anyone, including via repeated publication. This scientific review would precede the Board of Game’s normal public hearings and deliberations, so that the board and public would have full access to the review beforehand.      
 
Currently, the scientific community at large knows essentially nothing about the killing programs, and the responsible state biologists enjoy almost complete anonymity.  The process I am describing would force them to sell their thinking widely to peers or risk becoming the laughing stock of the world scientific community; this would have strong deterrence value.  Although the enabling statutes and public biases would still be there (at least for awhile), board members and other policymakers would have a much more difficult time authorizing programs that came to them with low scientific ratings.  These accompanying reviews would probably also lead to better media coverage and more thoughtful judicial decisions.  
 
Rick Steiner (Professor, Univ. of Alaska) and I drafted a bill along these lines for the Alaska state legislature to consider. It seemed best to amend an existing “intensive management” statute rather than start from scratch.  Read this draft at the following link: Sound Science Act 09.pdf (bold type indicates our additions to the existing statute, brackets indicate proposed deletions).
We understood that it would be difficult to find support for this idea in the legislature, even though the draft does not include any requirement for policymakers to abandon a program that gets low scientific ratings.  It has not been possible to get any legislators to introduce this bill yet.
 
The legislative route seems most appropriate.  However, with some creative thinking and resourceful use of the Internet (suggestions are welcome), there should be other ways to achieve the basic objective - to put the killing programs and their biologist-authors before a wide scientific audience for comprehensive reviews (with responses and rejoinders) that would then be easily available for anyone to consider.      
 
Other remedies
Quality review of the underlying science should also play an important role in other potential remedies:    
 
• Congress should expedite an amendment, H.R. 3663, to the Airborne Hunting Act, to close loopholes that Alaska exploits to use airplanes as wolf-killing tools at the drop of a hat.  This amendment was introduced about a year and a half ago but still does not seem to be attracting much attention in Congress.  A major effort should be mounted to bring it to the forefront.
 
However, the bill’s present “biological emergency” provision is a serious mistake.  It should be replaced with a requirement for an open external peer review process similar to the process in the proposed state bill (at the above link).  This would have the deterrence value of the state bill. But in addition, H.R. 3663 should require a favorable scientific rating for a proposed state wolf-killing program, before the Secretary of the Interior could authorize an exception to use airplanes.  That would be an appropriately high hurdle, one that almost certainly would have stopped the use of airplanes in all of the current Alaska killing programs.  Were the Secretary to ignore negative reviews as the state has done, seeking relief in the federal courts would not be disadvantaged by the premise of the Alaska courts about the primacy of the state’s experts.  
 
The problem with the biological emergency provision is that it involves much the same flawed maximum sustained yield, aka ”managing for abundance,” thinking that underpins the wolf- and bear-killing programs and command-and-control resource management in general.  This thinking assumes, ultimately, that highs and increases in abundance are generally good but that lows and decreases in abundance are generally bad - and that trying to maintain the highest, most stable levels of abundance is the best objective of all.  Per details in the March 15, 2008 blog entry, the objective that makes the most long-term sense for consumptive as well as non-consumptive users and from other standpoints is probably just the opposite - to allow as much natural variation as possible, up and down.
 
Apart from this problem and others, a proposed killing program could be weak in numerous ways. An open, external peer review process would likely challenge the proposal from all of these standpoints, whereas the biological emergency provision would allow a challenge on only one (dubious) issue.  
 
• The Secretary of the Interior should enforce restrictions on the use of money he disburses to Alaska each year ($14.2 million in 2009) for “wildlife restoration,” under terms of the Pitman-Robertson Act (P-R).  Alaska uses much of this money directly and indirectly to help “restore” moose and caribou populations via wolf- and bear-killing programs and for related research.  
 
For example, Section 669 specifies that all P-R-funded projects must be agreed upon by the Secretary and the state Fish and Game Department.  The Secretary should require favorable external peer review and wider public review as a condition of his agreement.  The Section 669 requirement that comprehensive wildlife management plans must be submitted to the Secretary and that these must ensure the perpetuation of wildlife resources for economic, scientific, and recreational purposes similarly opens broad review possibilities and implies other potential constraints.  Perhaps the Secretary’s disbursement of P-R funds of potential use in killing programs is also subject to review under the National Environmental Policy Act.  In all of these cases, the Secretary should ensure that the state does not merely shift its own funds around in response to P-R funding that is withheld from killing programs but still disbursed.
 
• Proponents regularly claim that the objective of the wolf- and bear-killing programs is consistent with a requirement in the Alaska Constitution to manage the state’s natural resources for maximum sustained yields.  As indicated, for wildlife this is usually described as managing for abundance; it is also commonly referred to as “intensive management.”  But that is not what the Alaska Constitution mandates.  It requires management of the state’s resources on the “sustained yield principle,” “for the maximum benefit of the people.”
 
This provides an opportunity for a constitutional challenge of Alaska’s intensive management statutes from at least two standpoints.  The state relies on these statutes in defending the regulations that enable the killing programs:        
 
(a) Maximum sustained yield is not the same as sustained yield, and the difference is much more than just in degree (March 15, 2008 blog entry).  True sustained yield management requires a heavy focus on the resilience of systems, which means recognizing the importance of exploitation policies that adapt to natural variations rather than attempting to replace them with high stability.  
 
(b) “For the maximum benefit of the people” implies much more than just producing moose and caribou for consumption by hunters.  Hunters are a minority of Alaska’s people, and the rest of the population embraces a more diverse vision of what the benefit should be.
 
 
Mar 29, 2009
Eleven of 12 wolves of the Copper Creek (aka, Three-Finger Charley) family scan a wooded valley in the Fortymile region of eastcentral Alaska in January 2005; one wolf is just outside the photo.  The alpha male is sitting at the bottom left corner.  His mate, the charcoal-gray alpha female, is standing near the right side of the photo.  Most if not all of the others are their offspring, born in 2004 and earlier years.  Copper Creek, a group that I had studied since 1994, was decimated by state-permitted aerial hunters beginning about a week after I took this photo.  In mid March 2009, state biologists themselves used a helicopter to shoot 84 wolves in the Fortymile killing area.