Predator Control: State remains staunchly behind criticized
Mary Pemberton / AP / Anchorage Daily News / June 6, 2005
Two hundred seventy-six wolves were killed in the second year of an expanded
predator control program designed to increase moose and caribou numbers in five
areas of Alaska.
While the number of wolves killed under the state-sponsored program more than doubled in its second year, the total was far below a target of 570 wolves.
Alaska's wolf control program has been decried by some groups nationwide but continues to get strong support from Gov. Frank Murkowski, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the state Board of Game. The state remains staunchly behind the program as a way to better serve Alaska hunters and rural residents who rely on moose and caribou for food.
Wayne Regelin, deputy commissioner of the Department of Fish and Game, said critics of the program, particularly those in the Lower 48, don't understand Alaska.
"I think a lot of them have no idea that a lot of people depend on wildlife for food. I don't think they have any understanding that when you get out in the rural parts of Alaska there are no alternatives," he said.
The program got its start in 2003-2004 in the McGrath area of the Interior where residents had long complained to state game officials that bears and wolves were eating too many moose calves.
The state created an intensive management study area there where it intends to remove all the wolves in hopes of repopulating the area with moose. The McGrath study area is the only one where the goal is to eliminate wolves.
Fourteen wolves were taken in 2004-2005 in the McGrath study area. Matt Robus, director of the state Division of Wildlife Conservation, said feedback from program permit-holders indicates wolves are still in the study area, which he describes as a "doughnut hole." Some of the study area is hilly and heavily treed, making it harder to hunt wolves.
"We are trying to reduce wolf populations close to zero in the small doughnut hole," Robus said.
The program is structured differently in each of the five wolf control areas. Some allow wolves to be shot from the air, others require pilot-and-hunter teams to land first and some allow both methods. The program also has a bear removal component in some of the areas.
The Legislature this year approved $650,000 for continued surveys and studies, Robus said.
"We need several years for this to play out," he said.
Signs are encouraging in at least two of the areas, near McGrath and Glennallen, where the programs finished up a second year April 30, officials said.
"They have seen positive results already from bear and wolf removal," Cathie Harms, spokeswoman for Fish and Game in Fairbanks, said of the McGrath area.
Despite a hard winter with more than 130 inches of snow in some areas and two cold snaps of more than 40 degrees below zero, a spring count of moose calves shows a 42 percent survival rate -- 17 percent higher than before the start of the program, she said.
"Despite the bad weather, things are going well," Harms said.
Near Glennallen, 67 wolves were killed this year. The game board approved the program for the Glennallen area because of steep declines in what was the top moose-producing region in the state in the late 1980s, area biologist Bob Tobey said.
He said there used to be an annual harvest of 900 to 1,000 animals in the area, drawing hunters from the Fairbanks and Anchorage areas, but harvests have fallen to about half that.
A count of moose calves and cows last fall was promising. It showed 22 calves per 100 cows -- about twice the number of calves spotted in previous counts, Tobey said.
On the west side of Cook Inlet, 91 wolves were killed this year, a figure below the initial objective.
"It turned out there were fewer wolves to start there than we first supposed," Robus said.
Efforts on the west side of Cook Inlet, where the program is in its first year, were hampered by poor snow cover that made it difficult to track wolves, he said.
"I would hope we should start seeing some improved calf survival this coming winter," Fish and Game biologist Gino Del Frate said.
At one time, the west side of Cook Inlet had as many as 10,000 moose. Recent estimates put the population at about 3,500 animals, or about a 65 percent loss, he said.
Del Frate said the program is going well.
"We did get a good start on it this year," he said.
The program, which originally was land-and-shoot only, added aerial shooting after permit holders requested it.
"They started indicating that several of the packs of wolves were in the tree country, and it was really darn tough to get in a position to take some of the animals," Del Frate said.
More than 60 moose were collared this spring as part of a calf survival study on the west side of Cook Inlet. While early, it appears that at least half of the cows have given birth and there was a good rate for twins.
"A cow that twins is a healthy cow," Del Frate said.
In the central Kuskokwim area near Aniak, 43 wolves were killed, well below the objective of 140 wolves. Poor snow conditions were a factor, Robus said. Permit holders also may have overlooked the Aniak area in favor of the west side of Cook Inlet, he said.
In the Tok area in eastern Alaska, 61 wolves were killed, less than half the initial approximation. Robus said part of the problem was that the Nelchina caribou herd tromped over about half of the game unit, making tracking difficult. The program there is in its first year.
"We think 61 is a really good start," Robus said.
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