If you are reading this, thank you. Not because you’re reading my blog (that’s nice too) but because it probably means you’re participating in the democratic process and looking for information about Alaska’s upcoming Primary Election on August 21st. It’s not often obvious where to go for good voter information before an election.
This post is an attempt to remedy that. Here I will share what information I have gathered, and point you towards a handful of useful links and resources so you can be prepared for Alaska’s primary. I don’t attempt to cover every candidate in every State House and Senate district, but Ballotpedia’s Ballot Tool (also linked below) will narrow down candidates to your particular district, and provide profiles if available.
Disclaimer: I attempt to present this information in an unbiased manner. I am a left-leaning voter but this is not an opinion piece; this election resource should be useful to people on every part of the political spectrum.
2018 Alaska Primary Guide
So where to start? A good place might be the official Alaska Division of Elections website, which lists all the candidates on the 2018 ballot. However this resource can be a tad overwhelming, and not particularly useful on its own, though it does list contact info and websites for most of the candidates.
A great resource for election information is Ballotpedia. If you follow that link, you can enter your address, select “Primary Election on August 21, 2018,” and you will see a sample ballot, including the candidates for whatever House or Senate district you belong to. You don’t need to research candidates for all 40 House districts, thank goodness. This won’t be the last time I provide a link to Ballotpedia’s election coverage.
The usefulness of this next resource will depend on your political leanings, but The Alaska Center is an organization whose main issues are climate change, salmon conservation, renewable energy and healthy democratic communities. You can find a list of their endorsed candidates here. If I find other resources for endorsed candidates in the near future, I will update this post.
Vote411 Voter Guide features informative Q&As with candidates, though not every candidate has responded.
Governor Bill Walker was elected in 2014 as an Independent with the support of Democrats, but he has faced criticism over high crime rates, a budget deficit impacted by plunging oil prices, and the subsequent capping of the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend.
Now incumbent Gov. Bill Walker faces both Republican and Democratic challengers in the primaries, effectively a three-headed race between Walker, the unopposed Democratic nominee Mark Begich, and Republican frontrunners Mike Dunleavy and Mead Treadwell.
Dunleavy moved to Alaska over 30 years ago, and wants to start Alaska on a “new trajectory.” His platform includes balancing the budget by reducing state spending and driving business investment, while also protecting Alaskans’ PFDs and tackling the state’s troubling crime problem.
Dunleavy’s main Republican challenger Mead Treadwell served as the state’s Lieutenant Governor from 2010-2014; Treadwell is hoping that his political background and business experience will propel him to the Republican nomination. His main issues are not radically different than Dunleavy’s, and his views on gay rights, abortion, and the Affordable Care Act fall well in line with the modern GOP platform.
Democratic candidate Mark Begich has served as U.S. State Senator, as well as Mayor of Anchorage from 2003-2009. Like Dunleavy and Treadwell, he wants to cut state spending while protecting the PFD. This is a consistent theme on both sides of the aisle, despite some polls suggesting that the majority of Alaskans either support the cuts or at least understand why they are necessary. I am no political strategist, but apparently targeting the roughly 43% of people who oppose the cuts is good political strategy in 2018.
There is significant concern on the left that Begich is playing the role of spoiler for Walker, and possibly handing the race to the Republicans. A poll commissioned by the labor organization AFL-CIO suggests that either Begich or Walker could defeat Dunleavy, but with votes split between them this becomes much less likely, with Walker polling at a distant third. AFL-CIO President Vince Beltrami has even suggested that he may ask either Walker or Begich to withdraw from the race, depending on how the Republican primary shakes out. This is an interesting story to monitor as we move toward the general election in November.
Dunleavy and Treadwell both support the continuation of the Pebble Mine permitting process, while Walker and Begich oppose it. According to Begich, it’s “the wrong mine in the wrong place.” How you feel about Pebble Mine most likely influences how you feel about these candidates in general.
Here is a televised debate between Begich, Dunleavy, Walker and Hawkins (who has since dropped out of the race), about rural issues like Pebble Mine, tribal management and commercial fishing. Dunleavy, Begich and Hawkins also participated in a public forum debate at the Alaska Oil and Gas Association conference in early June.
The rest of the Republican pack includes Christian conservative Gerald Heikes, the mysterious Darin Colbry, Merica Hlatcu (his name is Merica and he wants to bring an NHL team to Alaska), and Michael Sheldon – his fun fact is that he wants to remove fluoride from Alaska’s water reservoirs.
Lynette Clark is the Party Chair of the fascinating Alaskan Independence Party, and she is running for Governor as an Independent. The AIP contends that the vote for Alaskan statehood in 1958 was invalid, and they would like a chance at a redo, though they claim (not all that convincingly) that they are not a secessionist movement. I could easily write an entire post on the AIP and their provocative founder Joe Vogler, but this isn’t the place.
William “Billy” Toien is running on the Libertarian ticket, and this marks the fourth time he has run for Governor of Alaska.
The Lieutenant Governor of Alaska serves as a second-in-command to Governor, and the primary responsibilities of the position include oversight of state election laws and The Division of Elections, along with supervising Administrative Regulations and use of the State Seal. These are the candidates for Lieutenant Governor in 2018:
Democratic Nominee for Lt Governor
Debra Call / Facebook
When Edgar Blatchford dropped out of the race in early June, Debra Call became the lone Democratic nominee for Lt Governor. Call is an Alaska Native Tribal official who was hand-picked as a running mate by Mark Begich, who joined the race for Governor very near the deadline. Call is Dena’ina Athabascan originally from Knik, AK who now resides in Anchorage. She also serves on the Board of Directors for Cook Inlet Tribal Council.
Republican Nominees for Lt Governor
Lynn Gattis / Campaign Website
Gattis is a former member of the Alaska State House of Representatives, with a BA in Aviation Technology from the University of Alaska Anchorage. Her primary objectives as Lt Governor are to update and secure Alaska’s election services, grow the economy while keeping taxes low, and achieving fiscal stability through business investment and sustainable resource development. Here is her voting history while serving in the Alaska State House.
Edie Grunwald / Campaign Website
Grunwald doesn’t have previous political experience, but she believes new leadership is needed in Juneau. She spent 30+ years in the Air Force before eventually retiring with the rank of Colonel. The murder of her teenage son in 2016 has pushed criminal reform to the center of her political platform (she’s not the only running politician that has issues with SB 91). She also wants to rework the state budget and “give the people their PFDs back.”
Sharon Jackson / Campaign Website
Sharon Jackson served in the United States Army, and worked as a certified Electronic Technician after that. She also worked as Constituent Liaison for Senator Dan Sullivan, and more recently founded and serves as President of Republican Women of Anchorage. Her key issues are overseeing a “fair and honest” and more affordable election process and the reinstatement of full PFDs.
Kevin Mayer / Campaign Website
Mayer was born in Nebraska but has lived in Alaska with his wife for over 30 years. He is a former ConocoPhillips senior executive, and his political experience includes time spent on the Anchorage Assembly, the State House of Representatives and the Alaska State Senate. He positions himself as a candidate who is tough on crime, and he also wants to limit state spending and grow the economy while cutting “unnecessary” programs. His voting record can be found here.
Gary Stevens / Alaska Senate Website
Gary Stevens was born in Oregon and got his PhD at the University of Oregon, but has lived in Alaska since 1970. He served in the Alaska State House of Representatives from 2001-2003, and is currently serving in the Alaska State Senate. His Ballotpedia profile can be found here, and you can see his voting history on VoteSmart.
Stephen Wright / Campaign Website
Wright was born on the Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage, AK in 1969. He served over 20 years in the U.S. military, and wants to bring his experience to the position of Lt Governor. Wright wants to bring the state budget “back into balance” and limit government overreach, and he supports the development of Pebble Mine and ANWR. You can get a clear idea of his political beliefs via VoteSmart’s “Political Courage Test.”
U.S. House of Representatives
Republican incumbent Don Young is the longest currently serving U.S. House member, having served in Congress for over 130 years now. That second part isn’t true but it feels like it is: the infamous Young is the only member of the House to have served under Nixon, and he’s running for his 24th term as Alaska’s House representative. Here is a record of his sponsored bills, voting record, alleged misconduct and advocacy group scores. A troubling detail: his percentage of missed votes from 1973 to 2018 is 14.5%, well above the median of 2.4%.
Here are the Democratic challengers to Don Young’s House seat:
Dimitri Shein / Campaign Website
Dimitri Shein is a Russian immigrant who has lived in Alaska since he was 12 years old. His wife Melissa is an Alaska Native, and they have six children (four adopted). He is running on a progressive campaign of Medicare for All, increased public school funding, and an end to corporate tax handouts and corporate money in politics. His campaign does not accept PAC contributions.
Carol “Kitty” Hafner / Campaign Website
Hafner is running for the U.S. House as a Democrat who doesn’t live in Alaska (and in fact has never been to the state), which I didn’t actually know was possible. Hafner is a former flight attendant and biotechnology industry professional who has pledged not to take campaign donations from the fossil fuel industry. She supports net neutrality, federal legalization of marijuana, better care and support for veterans, investing in Alaska Native communities, and (like Shein) a Medicare for All system.
Independents running for U.S. House on the Democratic Ballot:
Alyse Galvin / Campaign Website
Galvin is a mother of four who has worked in the service, healthcare and education industries. For the last five years she has headed Great Alaska Schools, a statewide organization that she helped launch which advocates for strong public education for all Alaskan children. Along with enhancement of K-12 educational services, she supports net neutrality, abortion rights, renewable energy development, oil & gas development (she supports drilling in the ANWR but not Pebble Mine), and strengthening the Alaskan economy through diversification.
Christopher Cumings / Campaign Website
Cumings is a Ketchikan resident who is making health care his key issue in a campaign for the nomination. This focus on quality of life is informed by his personal struggle with opioid addiction; he can personally relate to the epidemic which is being felt across the country and he feels that a change is needed. He supports universal health care and an increased focus on mental health care, along with early childhood education and a $15 minimum wage. He is outgunned in campaign fundraising, but hopes that his message will stick with voters.
Here are the two Republican nominees running against Don Young:
Thomas “John” Nelson / Campaign Website
John Nelson says he admires Don Young but that it’s time to finally pass the torch. Nelson was born and raised in Alaska, and lives in Wasilla working as a financial advisor. He pledges to stop the “discourse of division” taking place in Washington politics, and to put a stop to federal overreach and wasteful spending. Other promises of his campaign include passing a responsible and balanced budget and finding “responsible solutions” to the problems facing health care and social security.
Jed Whittaker / email@example.com
Whittaker is a longtime staple of Alaskan politics. As part of the Green Party in 1996 he came in second to incumbent Ted Stevens, and then in 2016 tried to run without a party, which is technically possible given the proper amount of signatures (which he fell short of). This year, he is running as a Republican with no online presence and no ads. He calls himself the “Don Quixote” of Alaskan politics, and says frankly that he’s “not going to win” against Don Young. For Whittaker, running seems like more of a democratic imperative, and a way to push forward new ideas. Honestly, more power to him.
Ballot Measure 1: Salmon Habitat Protections & Permits Initiative
Update: This Ballot Measure has been approved by the Alaska Supreme Court and will be on the November General Election Ballot, not on the August Primaries. Still, it can’t hurt to learn about the issue now.
The “Stand for Salmon” ballot initiative centers on an industry that is important to many Alaskans both culturally and economically. Essentially, voting “Yes” means you support changing the way permits are reviewed and issued for any projects that would have an effect on bodies of water important to anadromous fish.
The measure would establish protection standards for fish and wildlife habitats that may be threatened by “adverse” or unrestorable damage brought about by any project, minor or major in scale. Permits could be denied if the proposed project would cause substantial damage to the wildlife habitat, as determined by the Department of Fish and Game.
Voting “No” means you do not support these new standards or permit processes.
The main supporters of the measure are Yes For Salmon and Stand For Salmon, who say that the current protections are vague and limited, and leave salmon habitats vulnerable to “political interference” and irresponsible development. According to the ADF&G, the current laws protect less than 50% of salmon-bearing streams in Alaska. Proponents of the measure also say this would give communities a chance to have a say in projects before permitting goes through.
The list of opponents to the ballot measure is a long one. The opponents are organized under the Stand For Alaska group, who say that the initiative is a misguided solution to a “problem that doesn’t exist.” They cite the already established protection laws, and say that this new system would seriously hamper Alaskan development and lead to lost jobs across the state. These groups have spent big money to get this message to Alaskans, raising over $9 million in contributions compared to Yes For Salmon’s approximately $1.1 million.
A detailed breakdown of the ballot measure can be found on Ballotpedia.
If you can’t make it to the polls on Tuesday, August 21st, you should check out the list of places and hours you can go to vote early, which you can do anytime between now and Election Day. To find your polling place ahead of Election Day, just follow this link.
Proposition 1 made national news as the notorious “Bathroom Bill” which would have rescinded the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance that currently allows transgender people to use bathrooms and locker rooms based on their gender identity, as opposed to the sex on their birth certificate. It was narrowly defeated by a vote of 53% against to 47% for, a surprisingly thin margin considering the “No On Prop 1” side had a 13-1 fundraising advantage over the proponents of the bill, namely the Christian policy group Alaska Family Action.
The Fair Anchorage organization called the results a “groundbreaking, first-of-its-kind victory. . . not only for transgender people, but for their allies and everyone who is proud to call Anchorage a welcoming place.”
Alaska Family Action did not comment on the results.
State legislatures in several other states have considered similar “bathroom bills” this year, and LGBTQ rights proponents are encouraged by the example set by Alaska, though the slim margin of victory indicates that Americans are still divided on this issue.
Mayor Ethan Berkowitz defeated Republican challenger Rebecca Logan by about 18% of the vote, a relatively easy victory for the incumbent mayor facing his second term in office.
Voters also broadly approved the $1 billion sale of the city-owned electric utility ML&P to Chugach Electric, a merger which will settle the sizable debt of ML&P and theoretically make Anchorage more energy efficient in the process.
All the bond measures passed with little drama.
And the new vote-by-mail system? Election officials are calling it a “spectacular” success. Anchorage set a new record for voter turnout in a municipal election, the unofficial count of 80,000 votes beating the previous record set in 2012. Lowered costs and increased voter turnout were the main goals of voting by mail, and officials hope that Anchorage has laid a blueprint for the rest of the state to follow.
As of 2018, Alaska is switching to a vote-by-mail system, following in the footsteps of states like Colorado, Washington and Oregon. People in those states say that the “vote from home” system has increased voter turnout, a conclusion supported by a Washington Post study. It’s not entirely shocking that giving people the option to vote from home over the span of a couple weeks is a positive step towards improving the functionality of our beleaguered democratic process.
This post is specifically meant for Anchoragites who have questions about their ballot or how the new system works.
Quick note: if you have not received a ballot in the mail, call 907-243-VOTE (8683) or visit one of the Accessible Vote Centers around the city. Click here for a municipality FAQ which should answer many of your questions.
Now let’s get to the ballot itself.
The first section on the ballot gives you the candidates for mayor of Anchorage. There are nine candidates, though it is effectively a two-person race between Democratic incumbent Ethan Berkowitz and Republican Rebecca Logan. Mayor Berkowitz was elected in 2015 and has focused a lot on crime and police presence in a city which has become increasingly dangerous in recent years. Berkowitz’ main challenger is Republican-backed Rebecca Logan, who works as the general manager of The Alaska Support Industry Alliance – an oil, gas and mining association. You can find background information on these and the other candidates here, as well as a light and inconsequential Anchorage Daily News Q&A which asks each candidate what they do for fun in Anchorage (Dustin Darden’s is a doozy).
The next three sections focus on the candidates for school board seats E-G, and this category is the biggest mystery for most voters. There is very little information online about the options, though the League of Women Voters of Anchorage has a ballot review with contact information for most of the candidates. One piece of advice: if you don’t know anything about the options, it is better to leave it blank than to pick a random choice. As of this writing, I have reached out to multiple organizations looking for official endorsements, and will update if I find out more. The candidates do at least have their own websites, and for now that is the best source of information.
There are 12 ballot propositions on the 2018 Anchorage ballot, and Prop. 1 is by far the most controversial. The so-called “Bathroom Bill” would undo Alaska’s current nondiscrimination law by restricting access to bathrooms and locker rooms based on a person’s sex at birth, regardless of their gender identity. For the sake of clarity: voting “Yes” would allow businesses to restrict bathroom access based on sex, while a “No” means keeping the current nondiscrimination protections in place. The proposition is backed largely by Alaska Family Action, a Christian public policy organization which says the bill is a necessary step in protecting the privacy and safety of Alaskan citizens who shouldn’t need to share an intimate setting with someone of the opposite sex.
Opponents to Prop. 1 (Fair Anchorage, Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, NAACP) say that the bill is a step backwards into discrimination, an unenforceable bill that would hurt the rights and privacy of transgender people. The Chamber of Commerce worries that the bill would also be bad for business, citing the similar North Carolina bill that is estimated by the Associated Press to cost that state $3.76 billion over the next dozen or so years.
This proposition has thrust Alaska’s voice into the national conversation about equality and LGBTQ rights. The country is listening: let’s think carefully about what we say.
Props. 2-8 are far less sticky. They are all bond measures that would go towards improving city services and infrastructure, from school facilities to roads to police boilers. They are basically seeking funding for basic and necessary municipal upkeep, at a negligible yearly cost to taxpayers. By all means, read the fine print. But for most voters, these should be an easy “Yes” and forget.
Prop. 9 is a direct response to Slush Cup 2017, when the popular event turned Girdwood into a “parking lot.” This measure would allow Anchorage Police Department to delegate parking enforcement to the Whittier Police Department, giving Girdwood residents some relief from the abandoned and improperly parked vehicles that flood their town every year.
A “Yes” to Prop. 10 would allow the Anchorage municipality to sell debt-ridden electric utility company Municipal Light & Power to Chugach Electric. Proponents of this measure say that it would increase efficiency of operations and spread out the effect of ML&P’s debt, leading to lower rates for consumers. They also say it would allow Chugach Electric to more effectively utilize variable renewable energy from sources like Fire Island, all while promising not to layoff any workers at either of the companies.
If it sounds too good to be true, that’s because it might be. An article from Alaska Policy Forum urges caution when it comes to this deal, pointing out that the process and details of the proposed sale have been shrouded in mystery from the beginning, and it appears that the normal competitive bidding process for a sale of this kind was bypassed for a direct “sole source” to Chugach Electric. In other words, it is nearly impossible to know if the municipality (and taxpayers) got the best deal possible.
APF also points out that while the measure promises no increase in “base rates,” this does not mean that your bill won’t necessarily go up from other rate increases. The general lack of transparency and careful wording of the large print has a number of voters concerned about the quality of the deal.
Prop. 11 would save most Anchorage homeowners money on their property taxes each year, though the trade-off would be a tax increase for residents who own commercial or residential property. The proposition would change the state law by raising the property tax exemption from 10% of a property’s value (max. $20,000) up to 20% (max. $50,000).
While this would give some tax relief to homeowners, business owners are not very happy about it, and it is feasible that renters’ rates would go up as a result. Mayor Berkowitz says that Prop. 11 would give tax relief to homeowners and broaden the city’s revenue stream, while critics worry that the “trickle down” effect on business owners and the local economy would cause more economic harm than good, all for a few hundred dollars saved by homeowners come tax day.
This proposition seeks to expand the borders of the Anchorage Fire Service Area to include currently unprotected property in the northeast area of Eagle River (an area including the Eagle River Nature Center). As it stands now, residents without fire services are sent a hefty bill if the AFD responds to their call (not a guarantee), and the size of that bill may go up in the near future. If Prop. 12 passes, the taxable services would begin in 2019. Properties currently within the current fire service would most likely not see their taxes increase in any way, but the newly-covered Eagle River Valley residents would of course see a tax increase in exchange for those city services.
Front-runners in the 2018 Iditarod are closing in on Nome, Alaska, and 60+ mushers and over 850 sled dogs are not far behind on the roughly 1,000 mile course between Willow and Nome. This year’s Iditarod marks the 46th annual running of “The Last Great Race,” a super marathon that tests the resilience and willpower of the mushers and dogs that brave the extreme conditions and intimidating distance in Alaska’s arctic frontier over the course of 8-12 days. Stretches of this route were used by Native Alaskan Athabaskan and Inupiaq people well before Russian fur traders arrived in Alaska, and dog-sledding also played a crucial part in the famous Klondike Gold Rush of the late 19th century. The most famous dog sledding event happened in 1925 when mushers raced to Nome to deliver a serum for a diphtheria epidemic that threatened to wipe out the entire community. Dick Wilmarth won the first ever Iditarod race in 1973, and since then the race has become a nationally recognized event fueled by hundreds of volunteers and millions of dollars in corporate sponsorship.
The 2018 race kicked off amidst some well-documented turmoil, including a shrinking budget, the loss of a major sponsor, increased criticism from animal rights groups, and a dog-doping scandal involving one of the biggest names in dog mushing. In a way, these mounting blows to the sport are not exactly shocking, considering that recreational and commercial dog sledding feels uniquely out of time – a 19th century phenomenon surviving against all odds into the 21st century. Indeed it is that sense of history and tradition which provides much of its appeal: dog sled races like the Iditarod and Yukon Quest exist not only as modern sporting events, but as nostalgic touchstones for a different time, when humans and their animals proved the power of their extraordinary spirit in the face of nature’s most frightful conditions.
Tradition can be a vital function of culture, especially those cultures trying to stay alive in the midst of assimilation and extinction. But tradition alone should not tip the scales against the weight of injustice: a point proven again and again over the course of human history. In fact we are still trying to learn this lesson; many of humanity’s most unforgivable crimes were (and continue to be) couched in the thick fog of tradition. I am not equating sled dog racing to those worst of human errors, but the criticisms against the industry of sled dog racing do seem worth examining. Nothing good should fear scrutiny or critical analysis, so it seems like a good time to ask, not for the first time: is dog sledding actually good for dogs? Or more precisely, is it bad for them?
If you talk to dog mushers, or even the majority of Alaskans, they will tell you how much sled dogs love to run. These huskies and malamutes are bred for frigid temperatures and lots of exercise. Anyone who has ever kept one of these rugged northern breeds as a pet will know how much exercise they require to be truly content. Often their love of the outdoors outpaces that of their human guardians, something that not enough pet owners consider when adopting. But it is important to note that these sled dogs are not pets: under Alaska law, sled dogs are considered “sport animals,” and the state’s animal cruelty statutes do not apply to them.
Alaska is not the only state where this is the case, and it is important for fairly obvious reasons: without the protection of animal cruelty laws, animals like sled dogs or livestock do not have the same legal standards for humane treatment. This has made it difficult for animal rights groups to hold responsible those owners of commercial or sporting operations who engage in questionable tethering or kenneling practices, or even culling (the act of killing non-useful animals). So this distinction between pets and sporting animals is important for both sides of this debate. Mushers want you to know that these dogs are not the same as your beloved household pets: they are strong and rugged animals, trained and genetically equipped to run great distances in extreme cold. Ironically, there are more problems with dogs overheating than becoming hypothermic. But for animal rights advocates, this legal distinction means that animal abuse can occur with little to no legal recourse. Those groups argue that this leads to an industry which is legally and morally inscrutable; if the state doesn’t give basic protections to sled dogs, how can the public trust that animal welfare is a top priority?
Merely pointing out this legal distinction is not an implication that there is widespread animal abuse happening in the world of sled dog racing. In fact it is clear that most mushers have a deep affection for their dogs, and a bond formed through shared experience on the trail. Alaskan cult hero DeeDee Jonrowe is known for her perseverance in the face of incredible hardship, and her love for the dogs which helped her when she needed it the most.
“The sweetness of the dogs and the bond with the dogs is what it’s all about,” she said in an interview a few years after a car accident that killed her grandmother and left DeeDee hospitalized for two weeks. “It’s a companionship and bond, and emotional give and take, that makes this sport unique. . . dog care is first and foremost the principle of dog racing.” Interviews with other mushers echo this sentiment of respect and devotion to the animals which make the race possible.
Sentiment only goes so far, however, and animal rights advocates worry that the public sees just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to dog racing and commercial sled dog tours. Fans and onlookers come out for the beginning and end of the race, as if that was the story. But the real story of dog mushing and the lives of these animals is lived in all that time before and after the run, when dogs are bred and trained and kenneled from birth.
The worst case scenario played itself out in Whistler, Canada in 2010 when an employee of Howling Dog Tours was ordered to kill 100 of the company’s 300 dogs when the business fell on hard times following the Vancouver Winter Olympics. There were too many healthy dogs to find homes for, so they were destroyed by shooting, stabbing and blunt force and dumped in a mass grave. The story came out when the employee who carried out the mass culling filed a claim for post-traumatic stress disorder. Another sled dog tour company in Snowmass, Colorado received national attention when Dan MacEachen of Krabloonik dog tours was charged with eight counts of animal cruelty in 2013, citing malnutrition, poor kennel conditions and insufficient veterinarian attention. He had previously pleaded no contest in 1988 for a charge of animal cruelty for breaking bones in a dog’s face during a “vicious” beating.
It is clear that commercial sled dog operations open up the possibility for mistreatment and abuse of dogs, even if most of the humans involved harbor no ill will towards the animals that provide the lifeblood of their businesses. Many of the owners and employees of such operations say that the public simply doesn’t understand the biology and needs of sled dogs, but it is troubling that so many large kennels have run into trouble over accusations of neglect, malnutrition, poor living conditions and legal culling.
In 2011, the Whistler Sled Dog Co. was established about 20 months after the infamous Whistler dog culling, in an effort to shake up the dog sled industry and prove (or disprove) if commercial dog sled tours could be profitable while maintaining animal welfare as the top priority.
The operation folded after two seasons.
Volunteer Director Sue Eckersley said in the documentary Sled Dogs that “We weren’t providing the level of care and the level of life that we were comfortable with as animal welfare people . . . margins are very small and the season is short. It didn’t make sense on a financial level at all.” After just two years of operation, the dogs were handed over to Whistler Animals Galore (WAG) whose job it has been to find homes for over 80 dogs.
The implications of the “Whistler Sled Dog Experiment” are troubling. For those two seasons, they were the #1 booked sled dog tour operation in Whistler, and they still did not last even three seasons trying to balance animal welfare with financial viability. If this is true, what does it mean for other sled dog operations around the world? The unsettling suggestion is that you can have profitability or animal welfare, but not both. If true, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that following the money led us into a Dagobah-esque cave which brought us face-to-face with our own humanity, and what we are willing to sacrifice in the name of our own goals and profits.
At the same time we should be careful not to conflate commercial sled dog tours with individual mushers, even if they face many similar challenges. Despite what some animal rights groups may try to suggest, dog sledding is not typically a very profitable venture. Maintaining kennels and providing food for dogs is quite expensive, and most mushers will tell you that mushing is not a sport about money, but about passion. Like multiple Iditarod winner Lance Mackey told USA Today during his own financial hardships, “Everyone thinks I’m rich because I won the damn Iditarod. The fact is, the more involved and competitive you become, the more you have to spend to be competitive.”
So let’s get back to the driving question: is dog sledding actually bad for dogs? It would be easy to say that commercial and competitive dog sledding is intrinsically cruel, an industry which sacrifices the lives of its dogs to satisfy the passion (or bottom line) of the humans driving the sleds. And it would also be fairly easy to take the other side, and argue that these dogs are truly doing what they love and what they are trained for – that PETA and organizations like it are filled with hopelessly misguided reactionaries that don’t have the first clue about the realities of mushing. As is usually the case, the truth lies somewhere in between.
When it comes to the Iditarod and other sled dog races, there is a physical toll. Some of the health risks faced by dogs include issues with dehydration, pneumonia, ulcers and gastric distress. Mushers argue that the number of dog deaths and injuries is commensurate with the sheer number of dogs in the race, and that pets face just as many risks staying home. The line for acceptable health risks in a race this grueling depends on who’s drawing it, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to ask for more stringent practices to protect the health of the dogs, not just during the race but also in that vast majority of time when they are out of the public eye.
Recreational dog sledding is a sport which enriches the lives of animals and humans – a way for both parties to get out in the elements and get the exercise they need for health and enrichment. Any time that humans act as stewards for animals, there will be isolated cases of cruelty – but dog sledding itself is not intrinsically inhumane. It is when the sport becomes motivated by competition or profit that things tend to get complicated. There have been too many charges against inhumane dog kennels to ignore: it doesn’t take a lawyer or a musher to look at the conditions and body language of some kenneled dogs to know that something isn’t right. Short seasons and large kennels are a nasty combination for dogs that often don’t get enough food, exercise or social interaction. Perhaps there is a way to keep sled dog tours in business while treating dogs humanely, but this would require rethinking standards and regulations for kennels, as well as changing the legal protections of these creatures that we profess to love. The legal loophole which denies sled dogs protection under normal animal cruelty laws is a major impediment in the quest for humane practices.
Three-time Iditarod musher Danny Seavey was asked recently by a fan: is the Iditarod inhumane? He then took to Facebook with an honest, thoughtful and no bullshit response to the question. In it he addressed some of the biggest controversies of the race (doping, dog deaths, kennel conditions, veterinary care) and even proposed a few ideas to improve these areas. He poked some holes in the idea of increased mandatory rests, proposing instead a “starting line” system at every checkpoint, which would leave the decision to run up to the dogs. He also acknowledged the bad optics of tethering, while at the same time defending its practice. Altering Alaska’s animal cruelty statutes would require mushers and dog handlers to come up with new strategies for kenneling and tethering, a logistical problem which is “probably where we should be concentrating our efforts,” according to Seavey. The biggest change he would make to the race? “Do away with the prize money. . . if you can’t afford to lose, maybe you shouldn’t be out there.” Perhaps the most important takeaway from the post is the attitude towards open and constructive dialogue. Like Seavey says right off the bat: “If we insist we’re 100% right, and the other guy is 100% wrong, we’re all doomed. Maybe PETA has a point on a few things. Maybe they’ll learn a thing or two from us. You never know until you listen.”
For the future of the Iditarod, changes to the race may have shifted from possible to necessary: a report by The Foraker Group shows the dire financial and cultural realities of the event, as relationships with corporate sponsors fray in the wake of animal rights protests and the mishandled doping scandal. There are signs of life from the Iditarod Trail Committee (ITC), as they have vowed to develop a “best care” kennel management program, in addition to shaking up the list of board members to remove long-standing conflicts of interest. Critics say that they have heard this before, and that it will take real action to prove the ITC is sincere in enacting substantive change to protect animals and mushers. The Iditarod and the centuries-old sport it represents is facing the harsh realities of the 21st century, and ignoring those realities would be neither moral or practical. Tradition, as we have learned, can only take you so far.
The Fur Rendezvous festival (usually referred to as “Fur Rondy” or just “Rondy”) is a winter tradition that has been taking place in Alaska for over 80 years. Initially it was put on when the fur trade was still a major industry in Alaska, and the 3,000 or so Anchorage residents needed an excuse to let loose and look forward to Spring. The event has been lengthened somewhat in recent years to lead into the start of the Iditarod race in early March. For more information and a schedule of events visit the official website.
Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city by far, and holds about 40% of the state’s population. That only amounts to just north of 300,000 people, even though the area of the municipality is nearly 2,000 square miles. Alaska is the least densely populated state in the country – not too surprising considering large parts of it are made up of tundra and inhospitable icy wilderness.
If you are driving in Anchorage and head east towards the foothills of the Chugach Mountains, you may very well end up on a road like this one, where the sounds of traffic fade away. I took this photo with my Nikon DSLR near sunset when the light was still touching the tops of the frosty trees.