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Wolf Issue in Alaska Howls for Sound Science
Vic Van Ballenberghe / Anchorage Daily News / December 27, 2005

As penetrating cold freezes rivers and lakes and snow blankets the land, another winter of controversial wolf control begins in Alaska. In places like McGrath, Glennallen, Tok, Aniak and Skwentna, more than 100 private pilots are licensed to shoot wolves in areas totaling about 50,000 square miles. By winter's end, several hundred wolves may be taken in control programs that are the largest since the federal poisoning effort of the 1950s.

Public opinion is strongly divided on wolf control within Alaska. This issue has commonly been front-page news over the past 30 years. Three different governors in the 1980s and 1990s found wolf control so controversial that they suspended the practice. Two ballot measures restricting the public's use of airplanes to shoot wolves passed by large margins. The Legislature tried to ban similar wildlife management initiatives but failed at the polls -- Alaskans clearly want to retain their constitutional right to change wolf control policy when it is thought to be extreme.

But wolf control advocates have worked hard to further their agenda. They successfully lobbied the Legislature to pass the intensive management law, a predator control measure that opens the door to large-scale programs poorly grounded in science. In applying the law, the Game Board has reversed a decadeslong trend of using sound science to justify, implement, monitor and evaluate control programs. Instead, the board now relies on political standards based largely on local opinions.

The wolf control program at McGrath is a good example. Local hunters claimed there were too few moose in the 1990s. A superficial census indicated only 850 animals. A planning team found that local demand required a population of up to 3,500 moose and recommended wolf and bear control to rebuild moose numbers. After the plan was approved, a better census revealed about four times as many moose as local residents thought were present. Clearly, there were enough moose, and control plans were suspended.

But the current Game Board resurrected the plans in 2003 and authorized private pilots to eliminate wolves in the control area. The board then doubled the moose population objective in the area without supporting information showing that sufficient habitat was available.

In another area, upper Cook Inlet, the Department of Fish and Game, itself a strong wolf control advocate, twice advised the board that information was lacking to proceed with control. The board accused the department of foot-dragging and authorized a wolf control program lacking basic knowledge of moose and wolf numbers, bear predation, habitat quality, and the impact of severe winters.

It's not that we lack the expertise to do things right, or that we have no scientific guidelines. A blue-ribbon panel of the National Research Council was commissioned by the state at a cost of $318,000 to review the issues. It recommended numerous biological and economic standards to guide predator control programs, standards that the Game Board now largely ignores.

In relying on political standards rather than on sound science, wildlife managers have gone down a dangerous path. As a former Game Board member and as a wildlife biologist, I have attended dozens of board meetings. Not once did I hear anyone tell the board there were plenty of moose or too few wolves. There will never be enough moose to meet the demand. If we base wolf control decisions mainly on local opinion, we are locked into never-ending control that often is unnecessary, ineffective and harmful in the long run. One hundred years of conservation history in this country indicate that wildlife suffers when managers ignore science and apply politics.

Wildlife biologists are increasingly recognizing the dangers of unsound wolf control and intensive management. That is why 123 biologists across North America wrote to Gov. Murkowski last January requesting that he return to sound science standards. An international organization of professional biologists sent a similar letter in July.

What more will it take to ensure that our wildlife resources are managed according to proven conservation principles?

Vic Van Ballenberghe is a wildlife biologist who has conducted research on moose and wolves in Alaska since 1974. He was appointed to the Board of Game three times by two different governors.


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