John Schandelmeier: In predator control, questions of ethics and efficacy

OutdoorsApril 15, 2014 

Potter Stewart, who was a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, said: "Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have the right to do and what is right to do." That statement isn't too tough to follow on paper, but when applied to predator control, it gets tougher. I don't pretend to know the right or wrong on this subject, but there is a lot to think on.

Predator control in Alaska consists mostly of liberalizing wolf and bear seasons. The public is involved through aerial wolf control and extended seasons on the ground. Bear baiting and longer seasons help control black and grizzly populations where it is deemed necessary, or desirable. The necessity of predator control is a hotly debated issue in our state. The methods and means of controlling animals we consider predators is continually discussed at great length.

Whatever one's views on aerial wolf control -- and whether it is ethical to shoot sow and cub black bears at the den site with artificial lights -- one thing is made very clear in Alaska: Don't waste what you take. Wolf hides are relatively valuable to the hunter and the state has strict salvage and reporting requirements for all aerial hunters. Grizzly bear hides and skulls must be salvaged and then sealed. Black bear hides or meat must also be saved.

I was stunned when I first read about the helicopter wild hog hunts allowed in Texas. Shooting animals from a helicopter is not really "hunting," it is just shooting. More research told me that there are about three million destructive feral pigs over-running ranchland, crops and even neighborhoods. I definitely understand that reducing numbers of wild hogs is a priority. It's the ethics that are bothering me.

I dug deeper with my research, to the point of making phone calls. It seems that shooting hogs from a chopper and leaving them to rot doesn't do much for controlling hog numbers. There were just over 18,000 wild pigs shot by this method last year. It's a way for a few helicopter pilots to make money. I think most of us have a real problem with shooting animals for the sake of shooting.

Recreational hunters take about 600,000 hogs each year. Most eat them. That's great, as is the program that allows wild pigs to be trapped and sold on the market. They are worth up to 45 cents per pound. Trappers caught and sold four times as many as were shot and left lying. Texas will finally solve their feral pig problem, but it will likely be with sodium nitrate or trapping rather than airborne hunting.

Try shooting a wolf in Alaska from a Super Cub and leaving it! It will be bye-bye Super Cub and your gun. But is it OK if it's a pig? Is it okay if it's a prairie dog?

Montana lets hunters shoot all of the prairie dogs they want, because there are millions of them. Guys who like to shoot things kill about 70,000 a year. The theory is that this helps control the population. Instead of doing that, it very likely helps the black-tailed prairie dog avoid population crashes that are common to species like the various hares and lemmings. Prairie dogs are prone to a type of plague that periodically devastates the population and brings them down to nearly zero. However, there are folks who like to shoot things. Very few people eat them and there is no market for prairie dog hides.

I believe that most people can see the need for reducing the populations of these fairly destructive little ground squirrels in areas where they cause agricultural damage and present hazards to cattle and horses with their burrows. Shooting any animal for the sake of killing leaves a bad taste. Wounded prairie dogs crawl back in the burrow to die. If they need to be taken, use kill traps and remove them humanely.

Ethics. What I just wrote might make shooting black bears at their dens seem pretty tame. Alaska has some of the most sensible predator control laws in the United States. It is due in a large part to the fact that we, the public, are allowed and encouraged to take part in the regulation process. I have been to numerous Board of Game meetings and listened to many different opinions on wolf control and bear baiting. All have some merit; we will be continually challenged to find a common ground. And to retain our ethics.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest

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