This week on The Alaska Show Podcast I sit down with Commissioner of Alaska Department of Fish and Game Douglas Vincent-Lang. Doug and I discuss how many bears should be on the Kenai Peninsula, the state's relationship with the federal government, subsistence, and raising the next generation of hunters and fishermen.
Covid is taking more of Doug’s time on a daily basis. Trying to provide for the fisheries across the state currently. They’ve been operating for fisheries for months without impact to human life so far and are hoping to continue.
The thing Doug has learned the most is to be adaptable. After getting the medical capacity up, the state is focused on getting testing up so they can test those who come to the state. If they test negative they can contribute to the economy quickly.
What does Doug’s day to day look like? He has an 8 am Covid phone call. It’s a lot of talking and understanding people’s issues and concerns. They want to know what ADFG is doing to protect their health. They’re really focused on getting fisheries in the water that keeps everyone safe. The protocols worked for the cases in Dillingham and Cordova at the time of the interview.
When Doug started 3 decades ago versus today - has the philosophy evolved in anyway or have the goals stayed straightforward? Doug’s goal is still sustainability - to leave the resources and department as good or better than when they’ve found them. The biggest change is the population has more than doubled and they haven’t seen a doubling of the resource. So you end up with a lot more allocative conflicts. It’s much more stressful now than 34 years ago because more people are competing for the same resource.
Technology has certainly advanced. The fishing power of the fleet is probably 2-3x larger than when the fishing resource was allocated years ago.
Does that mean reducing limited entry permits? Could be - it’s looking at the number of businesses that are economical in a fishery. In Cook Inlet we have many commercial fishermen and given the resource and competing interest - if you’re trying to share a million fish in a fleet of 600 you may be better off sharing in a fleet of 300.
At the bottom line these are public resource and the public needs to have a say in it. Alaska has a unique process in which the public can make decisions through the board voted on through the legislature. In other states these people are political appointees. Alaska is in a unique position in how people can weigh in on this management.
Alaska regulates according to board plans. They’re not a ministry like Canada. They get their direction from board of fisheries. There’s some discretion in that - but the manage first towards sustainability then towards allocation guidelines.
The first priority in Doug’s plan is towards food security. Doug gets daily calls from people about how the resource is managed. That’s a blessing and a curse. They’re blessed by having people who have a deep-rooted caring. Sometimes when they yell at Doug it’s a curse though. Having food security and that link to the outdoors is important.
Sometimes people want more food security with out of season hunts but they have to balance that with sustainability of the resource. A lot of municipalities shut fishing down and Alaska could’ve done that but they didn’t.
Ensuring the next generation of hunters. Nationwide hunting is declining annually and they’re not seeing the next generation of hunters come up. Across Alaska even, while it’s not as dramatic, the next generation is slowing down. They’re trying to get kids opportunities to get out in the field with their parents like changing seasons to be outside of school. Doug still remembers going fishing in the morning with his grandpa. He knows how important it is to take his grandkids out to enjoy the outdoors.
With the doubling of the population with moose hunting they are trying to increase the prey base by doing predator control on wolves and bears. If you’re just managing the prey base and not the environment or the rest of the ecosystem you’re going to fail over the long term. They control fires, for example, but they need to control predators. It’s somewhat controversial.
Some people just don’t think it’s right to manage for humans. They want to manage for natural diversity. In the Alaska constitution they manage for sustainability, which means human use.
Most people don’t realize the ADFG manages permitting and conservation. Most people don’t realize how unique that is across the US. Most fish and game agencies don’t have the ability to review and do permitting for development. People don’t realize how many surveys they do for subsistence use and understand how people use resources for subsistence. The third thing is people don’t realize we have a subsistence priorty. The federal priority is a rural-based priority which is different. In Alaska everyone has a subsistence priority. If you live in Anchorage you still have a subsistence priority.
What does subsistence priority mean? It means you determine if there’s a subsistence use of a resource and if there is you factor that quantity as the first use.
When you start talking about shellfish and marine mammals it’s a different game. The Marine Mammal Act is written in such a way that they allow marine mammals to have their optimal numbers. Alaska is trying to get that changed because clearly animals like sea otters are impacting a huge number of resources especially in Southeast Alaska. Doug thinks marine mammals should be managed with the ecosystem not prioritized over it.
Most people think ADFG manage most marine animals - but they don’t. Alaskans still have a trust responsibility, but the harvest of them is federally managed. They also don’t manage the Endangered Species Act. Doug believes the act should be used to protect animals who might imminently go extinct - not animals that may possible go extinct in 100 years.
Doug hasn’t been down to Washington in a few months but they have a good working relationship. Alaska’s constitutional provisions are different than the federal goals. They were really happy when congress repealed laws a few years ago that overruled state control.
With new rules Alaska should be able to manage different species for not only natural diversity values but for long-term sustainability uses. Under the old system they wanted bear numbers to be managed in their natural diverse range. That could go up to having 1700-1800 in the Kenai Peninsula. They knew 300 bears was too low, but once you get to 700-800 bears people are afraid to walk their dogs. They know around 700 bears you want to manage it. The rules give them the ability to manage within a human context. The federal government believes 1700 would be appropriate, right now they have about 700 bears. At 700 he starts hearing complaints about people’s personal safety.
Another thing that people don’t understand is that bears are the biggest issue in cities, not rural areas. They get shot in rural areas so bears stay away. Most people want to give bears one chance but not two. What do you do if you have a reported bear? You dispatch that bear or give it a second chance and let it maul somebody. People will switch their values instantaneously when their safety is at risk. Doug is worried about a bear mauling a small child.
How has the federal government’s priorities changed over time? Alaska has always managed towards sustainability. They’re moving away from sustained use and more into natural diversity and away from use of wildlife. They almost want a national park model. In Alaska the founding principle is on sustainability. More younger people are interested in eating wild game.