Murkowski’s Ignorance: Add Ecology to the List

Senator Lisa Murkowski, Climate Change Denier (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Senator Lisa Murkowski, (R, Not As Bad As Joe Miller) (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

A section of the 2016 federal budget, inserted by Senator Lisa Murkowski (R, Write-In), forbids the Fish and Wildlife Service from moving cattle off Chirikof and Wosnesenski Islands in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

“Where?” you say? “Whatever,” you say?

No, you should care, because it is a classic illustration of Senator Murkowski’s two most serious flaws. She assumes she is smarter and has better judgment than experts in their fields, and she follows her father’s policies as if they ever made good sense.

The experts warn that leaving feral cattle on Chirikof and Wosnesenski Islands is destroying the native vegetation and fauna, ravaging salmon streams, destroying bird habitat and very seriously damaging the ecologies on those remote islands. We know how this story ends. Populations expand geometrically until all available resources are consumed, and then it crashes, leaving no cattle and a devastated landscape. This isn’t rocket science. It’s pretty elementary population dynamics.

We know, too, that the problems can be solved. As early as 1750, Russian merchants intentionally released arctic and red foxes onto many large Aleutian Islands that had seabird colonies. Even after the Aleutian Islands became a wildlife refuge in 1913, refuge management initially encouraged fox ranching. Between 1900 and 1929, lease-holders and trappers released foxes on islands. By the end of the fox-ranching era, nearly every island with beach access south of the Alaska Peninsula and in the Aleutian Islands was stocked with foxes, and ground nesting birds were extirpated or reduced to low population levels over broad ranges. Removal of those foxes over the last two decades has saved the Cackling Goose from possible extinction and restored natural populations of native nesting seabirds.

Extirpation of Norway Rats on Rat Island, now called by its Aleut name, Hawadax Island, was completely successful. The rats, introduced in a shipwreck in the 1780s, lost almost all of its native nesting birds. The rats ate the eggs and hatchlings. Since the rats were removed in 2008-2010, the nesting birds are starting to return.

So invasive animal extirpation procedures work. They benefit the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, protect species, improve salmon habitat and help keep the fragile Alaska environment intact.

So why did Senator Murkowski stop the much easier, much less expensive removal of cattle? According to the Alaska Dispatch News,

“Sen. Murkowski does not support the removal of the cattle from the island, which have been on the island for more than 100 years. Removing the cattle is potentially expensive and logistically challenging,” spokeswoman Karina Petersen said in an email.

The senator brought up her objections in a letter sent last year to Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe that, among other things, opposed efforts to draft an environmental impact statement, Petersen said.

“Given that the result of the Draft EIS could lead the FWS to dedicate considerable resources to fund an expensive and difficult cattle removal project, she believes that the FWS should not move forward at this time,” Petersen said in the email.

The Norway rats had been on Rat Island for more than 200 years. They were far more expensive to remove, far more “logisitcally challenging” than a bunch of cows. It’s not like the cows can hide; rats certainly can. So the first excuse doesn’t hold water.

Senator Murkowski next argues that there shouldn’t be an environmental impact statement, an EIS, prepared because it might show how expensive the effort would be. Of course, is Senator Murkowski was really interested in stopping an expensive project she’d welcome an EIS that would prove her claim. But stopping the EIS, embracing ignorance? Not so much. In fact, it looks like avoiding the possible truth: cost is much less of an issue than the Senator pretends. The cows aren’t going to stop breeding; the damage will only get more extensive. Removal of the alien species will only get more expensive. So the second excuse makes even less sense than the first.

It may be that she’s clinging to her father’s silly claims. That’s a hazard of nepotism, of course; the dumb ideas are passed along like family heirlooms. Governor Frank “the Bank” Murky (R, C.O.B.), during the course of his amazingly corrupt administration, said in 2003, “These cattle have been out there for over 120 years and are an extraordinary strain of animal, free of disease and growth hormones. Our position is to leave the cows alone. … Let’s leave one island in Alaska for the cattle.”

Like a lot of things Gov. Murky said, the claims are utterly unsupported and mostly nonsensical. The cattle are necessarily severely inbred. No one knows whether or not they are free of disease; no one has looked, and now no one is permitted to look. Cattle free of growth hormones are available in the organic section of any supermarket. And the idea of “leaving one island in Alaska for cattle” has a lot more to do with Gov. Murky’s Good Old Boy network than logic. Are we leaving one island in Alaska for rats? For foxes?

And in fact we have a couple of islands given over to cattle already. Like Sitkanik Island, to name one. How many do we need to trash?

WC has never had high expectations for Senator Murkowski; the apple didn’t fall that far from the tree. But even by WC’s low standards, her special inserts into the budget are a stupid idea. As she buys her way to another six year term, WC hopes that some of her constituents will call her out on this particular instance of folly.