Friday Feedback: Comic Book Biology

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Every Friday the LA Progressive features a comment that was particularly noteworthy. This week we are featuring a comment submitted by Stephen F. Stringham, Director of Alaska’s Bear Vieiwing Association, writing in response to Jessica Teel’s article, “Eye on Palin: Disregarding Science Thwarting Democracy.”

Stephen writes:

Since my name has been dragged into this debate, regarding my statement about “comic book biology”, let me try to clarify matters.

The State of Alaska employs some of the best wildlife biologists in the world. However, a litmus test for being hired is a keen interest in sport hunting and/or fishing, and often a strong bias in favor of predator control. Hence, a lot of top notch biologists who might otherwise work for the State are excluded. The same is true in most states, in part because these departments were created primarily to produce wild animals for harvest, and because license fees and related taxes support these departments. So don’t be surprised if there is more support for predator control among state biologists than among federal biologists (who are not mandated to maximize hunting opportunities), or especially among non-governmental biologists.

Even among state biologists, inside and outside of Alaska, there is strong concern about Alaska’s predator control program. For example, 4 recently-retired ADF&G biologists published an article criticizing the State for not closely monitoring the impacts of predator control on bear populations; simply killing killing killing is not a professional approach which could have devastating effects.

Few of wildlife biologists (myself included) would rule out some form of predator culling under some circumstances. But we are deeply concerned that Alaska’s predator control program is not well-designed to meet its objectives. It is based on the simplistic notion that as predator number go down, prey numbers go up. THAT is what I called “comicbook biology.”

Science unequivocally demonstrates that predator-prey relationships are far more complex than that. Palin’s expenditure of $400,000 to “educate” Alaskans about the “scientific validity” of the State program is no substitute for actually having scientific validity.

I will soon post considerable information about this on our website (www.bear-viewing-in-alaska.info). But for now, let me just share an article I published several months ago on the subject.

From a scientific standpoint, the issue is not whether killing wolves or bears can have benefits, but where, when and how do the benefits outweigh the costs. And from a human perspective, we must ask who reaps the benefits and who pays the costs? Suppose that there is an area of Alaska where one family harvests moose and 10 families bring viewers to watch bears and wolves. If killing off wolves there would assure that the one family can harvest one moose each year, but the loss of those wolves would reduce profitability of the viewing businesses, whose need should be given preference? The State of Alaska, in nearly all cases, would automatically give the hunters preference. Reciprocally, folks like Ms. Teel might make the opposite choice. But an objective wildlife management would ask how dependent each party is on fate of the wolves, and what other options each side has for meeting its needs. If the hunters live deep in the bush, and would starve without the moose (a situation I have personally faced), then I’d give them preference. However, if the moose hunters earn $100,000 per year in real estate and just like eating moose, whereas the people earning a living from wildlife viewing have no other good option for income, I’d make a different decision.

It is complexities like this which led the National Academy of Sciences and over 200 independent scientists to conclude that Alaska’s predator control program was seriously deficient from both biological and socio-economic perspectives.

The State of Alaska would encounter far less opposition to its predator control programs if it quit trying to sledgehammer all opposition and tried meeting with them to find out their needs and work jointly to assure everyone gets a fair shake. Step one would be convening a scientific conference on predator control and on predator-prey relations, to which all interested parties were invited. If the State program cannot stand up to peer review by skeptics, then it doesn’t deserve the label of being “scientific”.

Stephen F. Stringham, PhD
Director, Bear Communication & Coexistence Research Program
Director, Bear Vieiwing Association
http://www.bear-viewing-in-alaska.info | stevestringham@hotmail.com | 216.67.78.103

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