Alaska's culture of killing

Alaska is a taxidermist's dream. Arriving at the Anchorage airport, one is met by a towering stuffed polar bear, ferocious fangs frozen in greeting.

I'm not against hunting. Born and bred on a national forest lookout station in the High Sierras, I grew up under the steady, clear gaze of mounted deer heads that I believed were my babysitters. I grew strong on the lean, sweet meat of wild game. And to this day at any family reunion, we're likely to have mooseghetti, caribou sauerbraten, or venison stew, all game from my father who prides himself on practicing the Fair Hunt Ethics: respect the animal, conserve its habitat, conduct a fair chase, take only what you can use, and leave a healthy population.

What I'm against - and Alaska is a tragic model of this - is the single-minded management of wildlife with only a hunters' agenda. I traveled through this last frontier's astonishing wilderness this summer - from the turquoise-tinted glaciers of the Kenai fjords, where glaciers calve with the sound of thunder, to the fertile arctic waters far off Kodiak Island, where humpback and gray whales feed, their breathing and blows like heart-shaped, visible sighs from another world. Even amid such natural splendor, I felt a dark undercurrent. I tried to concentrate only on the beauty of Alaska, just as I had ignored the hundreds of men in the airport arriving already dressed in camouflage.

But as I drove to the seaport of Seward, watching for belugas in Cook Inlet, where the saltwater tides lap right up against the glacial Chugach Mountains, all the natural beauty was not enough to stop my rising fear and anger.

I realized that every single road sign was riddled by bullet holes. Then I passed a bull moose road kill being efficiently flensed by a passerby. That sight wasn't troubling - I've witnessed that on childhood hunting trips with my father. No, it was the fact that everyone here in Alaska seemed so well prepared for the kill, expectant, anticipatory. That's what they were here for, wasn't it?

It was a culture of killing I'd witnessed before, in 1993, when I attended the Alaska Wolf Summit in Fairbanks. Gov. Walter Hickel had called the scientists, wildlife managers, and press together to forestall a tourism boycott hovering over Alaska after his announcement of the Board of Game's (BOG) plans to allow aerial shooting of wolves and bears. Every year, Alaska wildlife managers oversee the killing of 1,000 wolves, most of it by legal trapping, hunting, and snares; and 12,000 grizzly bears have been killed in Alaska in the last 10 years.

A new governor, Tony Knowles, is trying to find more fairness and balance by appointing just one wildlife-viewing advocate to a BOG dominated by those who favor only "consumptive use of wildlife." But the Alaska legislature rejected Mr. Knowles' appointee, just as it overrode a 1996 voter initiative banning same-day airborne wolf hunting. (Same-day airborne hunting allows state officials and anyone with a hunting license to fly aircraft over wolf habitat, then simply land near wolf packs and shoot them, provided the hunters stay 100 yards from their aircraft.)

The legislature claimed its decision would save moose and caribou for hunters - and that the wolf population is out of control. Yet the Alaska Department of Fish and Game declared it didn't support this view.

It's not the wolves who are out of control in Alaska; it's the hunters, the BOG, and the legislature that are running roughshod over the voters, scientists, and millions of wildlife viewers who want an equal say in managing the animals that share this last frontier. Though more than 80 percent of Alaskans aren't licensed hunters, and though wildlife viewers contribute 1-1/2 times more to the state's economy than hunters and trappers, their voices aren't heard.

In a disturbing new move, the Alaska legislature now proposes to ban all future wildlife initiatives by Alaskans so that only the BOG will determine all wildlife issues. This bill will be on the November ballot and is heavily supported by the National Rifle Association as well as other sport-hunting organizations.

Countering this move are Defenders of Wildlife and a new citizens' referendum to repeal the legislature's return to same-day airborne hunting. Alaska Wildlife Alliance is proposing the creation of a Board of Wildlife to balance the Board of Game's dominance. The governor has also called for a new era of wildlife management, which better represents the majority of Alaskans, who see wildlife as more than simply a meal, or a "crop" to be "harvested."

Come November, all eyes will be on Alaska as airborne shooting of wolves and bears begins again.

If the state legislature continues to force the hunters' agenda over all other wildlife issues, perhaps it is time for another tourism boycott, to help teach this last frontier what we who exist in the 21st century have already sadly learned: When we lose our respect for and balance with other animals, we also lose essential subsistence for our own souls.

*Brenda Peterson, a nature writer and author of 12 books, is based in Seattle. Her latest book is 'Singing to the Sound: Visions of Nature, Animals and Spirit' (NewSage).

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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