Monday, 14 September 2009

Predator Control by Press Release

If I was doing science by press release* to try and convince people everything was great about Predator Control, I don't think I would have taken the tack used in the AP story that the News Miner and the ADN picked up. This story is rife with problems.

First, while it's true that the current program really got started by Murkowski, there has been active predator control of one sort or another since pre-statehood. Poison, bounties and aerial shooting was employed by government agent until statehood. Aerial shooting continued with the public until 1972, when the federal Airborne Hunting Act was passed. This coincided with several harsh winters in the state, resulting in heavy predator depression of game populations.

In 1975, the first wolf control was authorized in game management unit 20A, which is south of the Tanana river from Fairbanks. This was conducted by only ADF&G staff. The policies were shaped over time through the 80s, and in 1992, the Board of Game (BOG) added control to three areas. Due to massive backlash from tourists, Hickel reconsider and BOG revoked their plan. In 1993, BOG authorizes additional predator control for 20A. Predator controlled continued until Knowles became Governor, and suspended all programs.

Because of the long history, I don't think it's fair to say Murkowski is responsible for predator control. It would be like saying I started the tradition of having breakfast this morning. Sure, it's technically true, because there was a gap of about 24 hours where I had no breakfast tradition, but it ignores all the breakfast I've had other days.

My next big complaint about the story has to do with mis-leading verbiage. The story implies that of all areas of predator control, a few have been successful. It then cites McGrath, and the Southern Alaska Peninsula. If we're allowed to talk about predator control as a holistic idea, a better example would be the aforementioned GMU 20A. The area currently hosts some of the largest populations of moose in the state, and very healthy populations of wolves (though not the healthiest, due to the 2003 invasion of a depeliating parasite).

If we're only talking about current areas, then I have some complaints. First, it's too early to be talking about successes. You only know whether you were successful after you remove predator control. One of two things will happen. Either population levels will remain stable, or the population of game species will decline again. If the number of game animals declines again, you know you've mis-characterized the ecological situation, and you're attempting to apply predator control where it doesn't work; if they remain stable, you know that you've been successful**. I will admit, if you don't see an increase in game numbers, it is fairly indicative that your current predator control regime is not applicable.

If we're limited to current predator control areas, then the Southern Alaskan Peninsula Caribou Herd is not great example of anything, right now. The situation is complex, and it's my studied opinion that we're not entirely in possession of all the facts in that system.  While Calf Mortality is clearly a major issue with the SAPCH (<2 per 100 is a very low number indeed), I'm yet to be fully confident that there are not other, conflating factors involved in the long term population trends.

The AP left out something re: the non-resident hunter situation that I think ADF&G would have pushed strong for inclusion. That is, that non-resident hunters are a substantial economic factor, especially in small villages. In order to access the non-resident permitted areas, a guide is typically required. Further, non-resident hunting parties can spend several thousands of dollars per person, and each tag typically results in multiple hunters in a party. While the Nelchina is a complex situation, one that I swore I wouldn't touch with a 10 foot stick, game there is not so precariously positioned that those permits need to be cancelled.

One thing I wish people understood is that Predator Control is like science in general: It's really, really complex. There are no simple answers to pretty much anything; everything is wrapped up in assumptions that need met, confidence intervals, and highly situational knowledge. There should be an * beside pretty much every simple line inside these sorts of articles saying "Well, X is true 85% of the time, and the other 15% of the time, Y and Z are true." We're letting ourselves get trapped by these simple story explanations which don't even begin to cover the truth.

*Science by press release is a pejorative comment to describe non-peer reviewed science that's pushed out there by Public Offices of Agencies and Universities. the chief complaint is that science by press release is rarely accurate, and never goes through the rigour of peer review.

** This is seriously simplified, moreso than everything else here. But the nut of the matter is sound - you don't know, until it's over.

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