(Published: July 6, 2003)
Old pilots make me uncomfortable. Old people tend to forget things. Forgetting things is not a good idea when you are at the controls of an airplane.
So let's ban old pilots in Alaska? How about an initiative to make it illegal for anyone older than 60 to fly an airplane in the 49th state?
And what about big-game guides? I don't much like them either. They are in business almost solely to cater to rich folk.
Why should the rich be able to buy this service? Shouldn't they have to work hard at learning to hunt like everyone else?
So how about a ballot initiative banning big-game-guiding in the 49th state too?
I bring these examples forward to illustrate just a couple of things I don't like that we might use the Alaska initiative process to fix. That same initiative process is being used today seeking to ban bear baiting.
I don't much like bear baiting, either: Never done it; don't plan to.
For one thing, I'm not much of a sit-and-wait hunter. Too fidgety.
I'd rather pound the marsh for ducks than sit around in a blind behind a bunch of decoys designed to lure something into range. But just because I don't like decoying ducks or baiting bears, doesn't mean I think either should be banned.
Lowell Thomas, an old pilot, and George Pollard, a retired big-game guide, feel differently. By using the initiative process, they aim to push one group's vision of ethics or morality down the throat of another group.
Pollard, as far as I can tell, is a born-again animal lover. Nothing wrong with that. I just wish he wouldn't try to bill himself as a hunter -- as he has for the purposes of this public debate. When I called him this week to ask him when he last went hunting, he refused to say, although he did admit, "I'm a retired hunter.''
As to how long he has been retired, or what he now thinks of hunting in general, he wouldn't say.
"You have to be more objective, Craig,'' he said. "It has no bearing on what the problem is. It has nothing to do with honesty.''
Then he hung up the phone.
I think we can safely say this about Pollard: He's a hunter like I'm a football player. Did it a long time ago. Don't do it anymore. Have no plans to go back.
As for Thomas, how he got involved in this initiative process is beyond me. He is a former lieutenant governor and one of the finest men ever to call Alaska home. He has never shown even the slightest inclination to demagoguery before. So one can only surmise that in this case his love for the environment led him astray.
Bear baiting looks bad to any environmentalist, no doubt.
And if it was bad, I'd be right there with Thomas pushing to have it banned. But the fact of the matter is there is no more scientific justification for stopping bear baiting than there is for yanking Thomas's pilot's license simply because of his age.
We don't need age standards for pilots because we have solid scientific standards for qualifying them. Pilots undergo a flight physical to determine whether they are fit to fly, no matter their age.
We have similar scientific standards for managing bears in Alaska. None of these standards indicate black bears are in any trouble because of baiting. Black bears are not over-harvested in Alaska because of this hunting technique.
Right here it is worth noting that black bears are the only bears for which baiting is allowed. The reason for this is simple. There are far more black bears than brown bears in Alaska. The sheer numbers of black bears justify more liberal hunting techniques -- techniques that make it easier to kill these bears.
There is nothing wrong with that. In many parts of the state, black bears remain underharvested. That's why many moose populations are in trouble.
In McGrath, for instance, the state just spent tens of thousands of dollars capturing and relocating black bears this spring in hopes of allowing moose calves to survive their first weeks of life, when black bears usually eat them.
Wouldn't it have been easier, and cheaper, if hunters had shot the bears and eaten them?
But hunters didn't do that, because in the flat, forested lands around McGrath, bears are hard to hunt. You can wander around the woods for weeks and never see one. About the only way to hunt them effectively is to build a bait station, which is a chore, and bring them to you with bait.
Yes, I know, some will say, "Well, gee, that doesn't sound fair."
It isn't. Hunting isn't fair. And it doesn't matter whether the hunting is done by humans, wolves or, for that matter, bears. Predators are the animals with weapons, fangs and claws. The prey are the animals with the tasty flesh.
In the long-running and ongoing dance between predator and prey, individual predators are destined to win, and individual prey are destined to lose. The only thing that keeps the system going is the ability of the prey to -- for lack of a better analogy -- breed like rabbits.
This is the way nature works. There is nothing fair about it.
Fairness only entered the discussion because early conservationists interested in saving hunting as a cultural activity for the masses needed a way to maximize hunting opportunities while minimizing hunting kills.
So they created the idea of "fair chase" hunting, not to be fair so much as to protect wildlife by outlawing quick-and-easy killing. Using fair chase, hunters would invest some skill and sweat in the pursuit, maintaining its cultural significance.
From what I know of bear baiting, it's as fair as anything in Alaska today -- and maybe fairer than our increasingly mechanized moose hunting. Bear baiters have to go to a fair amount of time and trouble to build, supply and clean up their bait stations.
The latter is, in fact, probably the most significant change in bear baiting in Alaska in the last 10,000 years, which is about how long this practice has been going on. Alaska Rep. Don Young is right when he cites bear baiting as the most traditional form of Alaska bear hunting.
Today, bear baiters can't use garbage for bait; they can't do their bear hunting in a village or town; they can't leave a mess in the woods; and they're required to put up signs warning people away from bear-baiting stations.
Why? Because bear baiting stations attract bears, just as the Russian River attracts bears. The Russian River also attracts people. Because of the sheer number of people and bears there, it is safe to say the chances of encounters between bears and people at the Russian River are several orders of magnitude greater than the chances of encounters between bears and people at the average bear-baiting station.
Anyone interested in banning bear baiting for public safety ought to first do something about the Russian, a far greater hazard. Maybe we should just make it off-limits to humans.
That would make the public safer.
Meanwhile, if you want an environmental issue to fret over, go take a look at what off-road vehicles used by moose hunters and joyriders are doing to the tundra all over Alaska.
That damage is a legitimate environmental concern. Bear baiting isn't.
The initiative to ban bear baiting isn't about the environment; it's about intolerance.
That's easy enough for me to understand. I don't like bear baiting. Personally, I find the practice distasteful. But I can't bring myself to declare it wrong just because of these feelings. The issue simply lacks the sort of justifications that should be required before we start telling our neighbors how to behave.