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Thread: Big Game in Alaska by Morgan Sherwood

  1. #1
    Member bushrat's Avatar
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    Dec 2005
    Now residing in Fairbanks from the bush

    Default Big Game in Alaska by Morgan Sherwood

    I recently finished Morgan Sherwood's Big Game in Alaska - A History of Wildlife and People.

    It's available for sale on this forum (link above) - here's the blurb:
    With the Klondike gold rush, a struggle erupted in Alaska between the protection of big game animals and man’s economic ambitions, a riveting story chronicled by Morgan Sherwood in Big Game in Alaska.

    In concise and clear prose, Sherwood charts the history of this environmental and political conflict, examining the creation of the Alaska Game Commission in the early 1930s, the use of distorted science and menacing technologies, the antipathy of farmers and fishermen toward animals, and the prevailing belief in man’s right to shoot wild animals at will. An incisive historical study of the flawed attempts to govern big game predation, Big Game in Alaska will be essential reading for historians and environmentalists alike.

    The development of Alaskan wildlife management is an engrossing saga, and Morgan Sherwood’s vivid writing brings to life the people and politics that shaped its course. A symbolic legal confrontation over hunting rights between General Simon Buckner and the Alaska Game Commission is at the center of this story of the conflict between hunters and those concerned for the hunted. Sherwood shows how attitudes and values in the lower forty-eight states affected federal wildlife policies in Alaska.

    It was fairly dry but well researched I thought. Since it was written in the late 70s, it doesn't have any current information on changes to hunting and wildlife laws since 1980 and advances in wildlife science.

    Anyway, thought maybe those of us who've read it, and those who haven't yet, could discuss aspects of the book having to do with hunting methods and means and willdife management strategies.

    The book details how bears - grizzlies and brown bears - were for a long time the whipping boy of many who felt Alaska should be or would be just like many lower-48 states, with agriculture and ranching industries. For example, back in 1919, Thomas Riggs, then Territorial Governor, said: "The brown bears have no place in the economic development of the territory any more than the herds of wild buffalo would have in the wheat fields of Minnesota and the Dakotas."

    We were lucky some ardent conservationists took up the cause of the brown bear in places like Kodiak. Certainly the guide industry helped as well to highlight the economic value of the big browns to the burgeoning territory.

    As Alaska became more populated and infrastructure and transportation methods improved, Sherwood hit on how it affected wildlife populations: "If the railroad was a threat to the moose of Alaska, the highway was the caribou's worst man-made enemy. Frank Dufresne recommended in 1928 that Twelvemile Summit and Eagle Summit, of the Steese Highway between Fairbanks and Circle, be declared off limits to hunting. Caribou that pass there, he said, were exposed to merciless shooting from motorists in cars parked along the road. Nine years later Territorial Senator John Powers told the game commission that hunters were slaughtering caribou by the hundreds near the road and leaving the carcasses on the ground to rot."

    Indeed, over on the Taylor Highway that was built in the mid 50s the same kind of thing happened on a grander scale.

    Sherwood has a lot to say about the advent of aircraft use in Alaska: "A later improvement in transportation technology was even more dangerous to wildlife than outboard and inboard motors, steamboats, highways and railroads. The airplane tamed Alaska, beginning in the twenties.... Although recent regulations permit transportation but forbid driving, spotting, and shooting from the air, and although the commission moved in 1951 to prohibit the use of helicopters in killing or transporting game, the misuse of aircraft in hunting remains one of those appalling examples of man's own inability to manage his own technologies."

    A rather ironic twist on hunting methods and means is that according to an earlier 1925 law, hunters could not "use any airplane, steam or power launch," only boats driven by oars, paddles and poles. We went through a phase when new technologies first came about whereby Game Commission members felt the use of those motorized transportation means for hunting would severely deplete stocks. Then later on, particularly after statehood, we went in a differing direction that to this day still continues to cause problems and comes up at Board of Game meetings and in proposals concerning limiting certain types of motorized use.

    Book goes on to discuss predators, aspects of predator control, and how it became an "emotional" issue, bounties and the economic effect bounties had on Alaskans who were bounty hunters, especially during the great depression: "All together, between 1915 and 1950, the Territory paid $500,000 in bounties for wolves and coyotes." (Read Alaska's Wolf Man for more info on the life of a bounty hunter during that time.)

    Also, what many may not know is how many bald eagles we killed under the guise that they killed fur-bearing animals and depleted salmon stocks: "The legislative reaction [to reports in previous sentence] between 1917 and 1940 was a bounty program that paid out almost $100,000 for evidence of the deaths of 103, 459 eagles."

    Sherwood's chapter on Motives (my favorite) of differing people and groups inre wildlife management and game laws goes into the importance of wild game to so many Alaskans (Native and non-Native) and non-Alaskans, the economic and cultural importance of retaining our natural wildlife and wilderness etc. What's interesting to me is that there are economic interests (the "dollar value" of Alaska's game) that often conflict. We have your resident Alaskan hunter who mostly wants to put food on the table, the guide industry that wants trophy animals for non-resident clients, and the tourist industry that wants viewable wildlife of all kinds.

    Much discussion in the Motives chapter of the value too of predators and fully intact ecosystems, plenty of Aldo Leopold quotes, and how the motives of those who want more ungulates can conflict with those who aren't as keen to take so many predators out of the system.

    Book goes on to discuss Native hunters and hunting practices, highlighting the difference of opinion among historians that Native hunters were the romanticized "conservationists" who only killed what they needed and never wasted etc. Sherwood argues that the evidence suggests Alaskan Native hunters did at times waste food, and they weren't exactly the ecologically concious first conservationists so many make them out to be: "Whatever viewpoint prevails, the documentary evidence is overwhelming that Alaskan Natives, at the turn of the century (1900), overexploited the game animals on which they still depended. They were eagerly joined in that wasteful endeavor by white hunters. Perhaps the two races are more alike than some theoretical scholars care to admit."

    Next chapter is on the Euro-American hunters and hunting practices. A bit in there about the growing guide industry in Alaska. Some may find this quote ironic, compared to how guides now advertise. Circa 1939: "Guides were strictly enjoined not to make rash promises of what game they can help a hunter to obtain." Eventually, Sherwood explains, the law mandated that all non-res hunters had to hire a guide for all game. Even wildlife photographers were "obliged" to hire a guide!

    Also discusses military hunters, which is a sub-theme of the book somewhat, the fight for military personnel stationed in Alaska to get resident status after one year. And the nature of transient hunters (both military and civilian) and the effects of such an increase in that kind of hunting population in our state. One paragraph on what happened after WWII was pretty sad: "With the end of the war in August, thousands of hunters hiked into the wilderness to kill big game animals. The result was a slaughter of almost anything that could be shot, and much waste. Many animals were killed so far from roads or trails that the meat spoiled before it could be used....According to the commission, some of the hunters slaughtered for the joy of killing, judging from the dead animals found in the hills. Cases prosecuted in the courts were the most flagrant kind. It was a dark and grisly time in the history of Alaska."

    Sherwood certainly gets into his views on how hunters and hunting affected game populations, but even moreso he continually hammers on how hunting has changed: "Man the hunter is still accused by preservationists of endangering the survival of species. The criticism becomes more stinging as hunting technologies improve and the hunt becomes less a fair chase and more a sure thing requiring little wilderness wisdom and sometimes very little exertion. The airplanes, autos, snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles, two-way radios and fancy, manufactured camping gear have made the term "roughing it" almost obsolete."

    And then later on the page: "Accusations that guides used airplanes illegally, pampered customers, and wasted wildlife, were heard more frequently."

    Sherwood closes the book with a Big Game Plan chapter. He correctly describes imo the "four main variables" that have determined how big game animals survived the impacts of man on the natural environment of Alaska: "The first is the population ratio of hunters to game animals in a given region. The second is the demand or market for the meat, hides, or heads. The third is the effectiveness of available hunting technologies, broadly construed. The fourth is a combination of all the attitudes that would tend to preserve animals, including the Natives magico-religious conservation beliefs and white political conservation policies and philosophies."

    And he explains how all of those variables can be manipulated and are manipulated.

    Overall, I'd give Sherwood's book a 7. Lots of good historical data from the early 20th century. Some bias present especially inre use of newer hunting technologies. It does bring up a lot of things we hunters can and should discuss. Feel free to toss out some more quotes from the book, just thumbed through some sections here as I was typing this up.

  2. #2
    Member Rock_skipper's Avatar
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    Mar 2008


    Mark, I hav'nt read the book but might buy it.

    Does it metion the cow hunts in the late 60s? , And if so what was the authors view on that?

    I'm not trying to bring up the argument again, just wondering because it still chaps my hide.

  3. #3
    Member AlaskaTrueAdventure's Avatar
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    Apr 2006
    Paradise (Alaska)

    Default Not the '60s...

    Rock Skipper,

    This book does not cover AK game management in the '60s.
    It does cover game management and Alaskan "attitudes" from frontier days through the military buildup following WWII.

    Be aware that this is not a "how-to-hunt" book. It is not "light" reading. It is a historicaL record of game management, especially concerned with brown bear and wolf management. Yet, as a hunter and a guide-outfitter, I found it extremely interesting. Also note that, after reading this book, I get the impression that the author has never-and probably would never-shoot bears or wolves.

    Forum member wantj recommended, kind of recommended or advised, that I read it. Well, looking back, he merely asked me if I had read i did. This is not a book that your average joe-hunter would enjoy reading. But many on this forum view themselves as much more than the average Joe...and that person will probably gain some insight from this book.

    Bushrat...good post and overview.


  4. #4
    Member martentrapper's Avatar
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    Apr 2006
    Fairbanks, Ak.

    Default Average Joe

    Quote Originally Posted by AlaskaTrueAdventure View Post
    Rock Skipper,

    But many on this forum view themselves as much more than the average Joe...

    Would anyone who is a member of this forum and feels they are an average Joe, please raise your hand!
    I can't help being a lazy, dumb, weekend warrior.......I have a JOB!
    I have less friends now!!


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