“The eagle is a curse to the rest of the animal kingdom and the sooner it is exterminated, the better off the game will be,” an assertion in the Valdez Miner read on April 17, 1920.
At the Baranov Museum in Kodiak for many years a full eagle’s feathered wing stood in a corner of a kitchen pantry, frozen in place for the many historical stories it told. During tours of the museum, school children and tourists learned that eagle wings were popular as brooms and a must-have in many homes on Kodiak Island. A bounty on eagles by the U.S. Territorial government that lasted many years rewarded young and old shooters alike with 50 cents per eagle kill. From 1917 to 1953, about 120,195 eagles were killed this way, according to numbers kept by the Territorial Treasury.
The justification for killing bald eagles were many at the time: they killed fox farm pups, sheep, calves, moose, caribou and hauled off more than their share of salmon, according to lore.
Fishermen began lobbying to pass a hair seal bounty in 1925, when a government study concluded that the diet of hair seals, which lived near the coast, was rich in salmon. The study “reinforced popular belief that there were anywhere up to a million sea lions and double that number of harbor seals in Alaska’s waters, each one making catches of food greater than the average fisherman could produce,” according to Kenai Fjords National Park Historic Resources Study.
Two years later, on April 20, 1927, the bill unanimously passed the Alaska Senate. Soon afterward it sailed through the House, and on May 3, Gov. George Parks approved the bill and it immediately went into effect. It gave $2 per seal face produced – you had to show both eye holes and both ears – to bounty hunters. For the next four decades, the bounty reward fluctuated, one time placed as high as $6 per seal to de-escalate their interference in the salmon take.
Dolly Varden holds a place in the dark history of Alaska bounty hunting as well. The pink-dotted trout was fingered as the culprit preying on valuable young salmon. From 1921 to 1939, 2 to 5 cents was paid for each Dolly tail turned into officials. If they eliminated the Dolly Varden, it was thought, the survival of juvenile salmon would increase. It’s now known the folly of that thinking. But 6 million tails were turned in for payment before the program ended in1939. By then 20,000 of the tails turned out to be Coho salmon.
Alaska’s not the only shameful state when it comes to animal destruction by bounty incentives. That shame is a legacy of the American West also. But, it’s a hard one to live down when wolf bounties of $150 continued into more recent times. Even worse, we don’t learn from the mistaken notions.
Now, Sen. Bert Stedman of Sitka advocates for $100 bounty on sea otters. The idea is to decrease escalating otter populations in order to ensure more bio mass of shell fish.
Many, even Stedman, are doubtful his bill would be enforceable even if it passes. But the notion of targeting an animal in a complex ecological system surely harkens back to the dark ages of Alaska bounty thinking.
This isn’t the kind of world any more where we can point to a single animal as the primary problem for our losses.
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