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Aerial Wolf Control Effort Begins in Alaska
Tim Mowry / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / December 14, 2005

Despite howls of protest from Outside animal-rights groups and a grass-roots campaign to outlaw same-day airborne hunting of wolves, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is going ahead with its controversial effort to produce more moose and caribou for hunters.

The state would like 400 wolves killed this winter, the third year in a row that hunters armed with special permits can shoot wolves from the air or land.

So far, only six wolves have been killed this winter in areas targeted for lethal wolf control, but that number will climb as more pilots take to the air and the amount of daylight and snow increases to make tracking wolves easier, Fish and Game spokeswoman Cathie Harms said.

The state recently issued more than 100 permits to pilots who applied to participate in the program. Pilots, most of whom have "gunners" flying with them, must be approved by the state.

Alaska is home to the largest remaining population of gray wolves in the United States. State biologists estimate some 7,000 to 11,000 wolves roam the state.

More than 400 wolves have been killed since the state began issuing permits to aerial shooters two years ago to reduce wolf populations in specific "intensive management" areas, including a reported harvest of 277 wolves last year.

But it takes more than one or two years of predator control to influence a game population, emphasized the state's game boss, Matt Robus, director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation.

"If you just have one good year class and have a horrible winter kill them all off, you're no better off than before," Robus said. "Every winter we keep wolf predation down allows the previous year classes to do that much better."

The state has targeted five specific areas for wolf control: the Nelchina Basin in Game Management Unit 13 north and south of the Denali Highway; a small area around the village of McGrath in Unit 19D East; the Fortymile River country in Units 12 and 20E near Tok; the central Kuskokwim River region in Unit 19A; and Unit 16B west of Cook Inlet near Anchorage.

The only wolves killed thus far were taken in the Fortymile region of Units 12 and 20E.

The number of wolves to be taken in each area varies according to the population. In 19D East, the smallest of the five areas, the harvest objective is 20 wolves. The objectives in the remaining four areas range from about 80 to 120. Each area has a minimum number of wolves that must be left in place.

Permits for all five areas were issued in the past week, but conditions haven't been conducive to tracking wolves in some places, such as unit 16 south of Anchorage. Record-high temperatures late last week melted most of the snow south of the Alaska Range, said Bruce Bartley with Fish and Game in Anchorage.

As they have since the state resurrected same-day airborne hunting of wolves under the guise of a state-sponsored predator control program three years ago, critics contend the state doesn't have the science to justify killing hundreds of wolves.

Karen Deatherage, Alaska representative for Defenders of Wildlife, said the state "is flying blind" and termed the state's predator control program a "wolf-killing spree."

"The department has only wild guesses about how many moose there are in these areas, how many can live there without starving to death or whether private shooters using airplanes to kill wolves will even make a difference in moose numbers," she said. "It's not biology--it's anti-wolf hysteria masquerading as science."

But Robus is confident state wildlife biologists have gathered enough evidence to warrant predator control in the selected areas.

"No matter how good your study is and how solid your conclusion is, you can always go back and re-evaluate it and re-analyze it if you had the time and resources to do it," he said. "We don't have the luxury of sitting year by year and hope somebody will be able to do a more conclusive study."

The information-gathering process is dictated by funding and staff, both of which have been declining at the Department of Fish and Game the last several years.

"We're doing the best science we can with the resources we've got," Robus said. "These are not lab experiments. These programs are being done over hundreds of square miles."

While biologists can track things such as population trends, composition counts, calf survival rates, bear densities and wolf numbers, changing variables such as weather and habitat require wildlife management to be adaptive, Robus said.

As an example, Robus said it wasn't until Fish and Game intensified its study of wolf predation that biologists discovered how much of an impact bear predation has on game populations in some areas. As a result, the state is now targeting bears as part of its predator control program in some areas.

Judging from what biologists have seen after just two years of wolf control around McGrath and in the Nelchina Basin, the program appears to be having an effect.

State wildlife biologist Bob Tobey in Glennallen just finished doing moose surveys in Unit 13 and reported an increase in the number of yearlings.

"There's no question the decline has stopped," he said of the moose population in the Nelchina Basin, which dropped by 50 percent in the 1990s. "The big thing I can say is we're seeing an increase in yearlings, which means we had increased calf survival last winter."

Biologists are reporting a similar trend in Unit 19D East near McGrath. Despite high calf mortality due to a harsh winter last year, calf survival was higher than it was when the program started two years ago, Harms said.

State game officials point out that the areas in which predator control is occurring only make up about 5 percent of the state. The state has taken a "surgical" approach to predator control, Robus said, concentrating on areas where prey populations have declined to the point it's affecting those who rely on it.

But that argument doesn't fly with critics opposed to the use of airplanes to kill wolves.

Priscilla Feral, executive director of Friends of Animals, the animal-rights organization based in Darien, Conn., that has protested Alaska's predator control program by promoting a tourism boycott, is still fighting to stop the state from killing wolves.

While the group is not organizing the "howl-ins" the way it has the past two years, Feral said the group has a suit pending against the state to get the program stopped based on lack of information.

"We're hoping to have the program declared illegal and halted," Feral said. "We're just waiting to hear the judge's ruling to see whether or not we have a trial. We really think this is going to be decided in court."

There's a chance it could be decided by Alaska voters at the ballot box, too.

Backers of a potential ballot initiative to outlaw same-day airborne shooting of wolves are in the final stages of collecting approximately 32,000 signatures of registered voters to get the initiative put on the November ballot.

The Alaskan trio of former Game Board member Joel Bennett of Juneau, noted author Nick Jans, also of Juneau, and photographer Tom Walker, who lives in the Denali Park and Preserve area, authored the initiative. It would allow the shooting of wolves from the air only by state employees and in the event of a biological emergency.

"Something that rises beyond trying to tip the scales in favor of hunters," Bennett said. "We think it should turn on whether wolves are causing a serious problem."

Bennett wasn't sure how many signatures had been collected, but he's confident the group will come up with the required number. The group must submit its list of signatures to the Division of Elections on Jan. 8.

"We've got a substantial number but how close we are I don't know," said Bennett, who helped spearhead similar ballot initiatives in 1996 and 2000.

The group isn't opposed to killing wolves but contends the state should only be doing so in a professional manner when it's biologically necessary.

"The crux of our position is there needs to be a higher bar before airplanes are introduced into wolf control," Bennett said. "It shouldn't be a clandestine sport hunt for wealthy people to go out in their airplanes."

News-Miner staff writer Tim Mowry can be reached at 459-7587 or tmowry@newsminer.com

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