One of the wildest, most solitary creatures in Anchorage's backyard -- the wolverine -- may find itself a little more solitary next year. And dogs that accompany skiers and hikers into the backcountry might not fare so well either.
That's how state biologists assess the Alaska Board of Game's little-noticed decision this month to permit wolverine trapping in portions of Chugach State Park.
But a majority of board members agreed with member Bob Bell, who argued that wolverines are so secretive and scarce, it's nearly impossible to spot one as part of a wildlife-viewing experience, whereas they do have value for trappers.
Among the dozens of actions taken during the board's 10-day spring meeting were several that directly affect residents and wildlife in Anchorage, including decisions to allow a spring brown bear hunt in Chugach State Park and beaver trapping near Birchwood.
While the Anchorage office of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game supported the bear hunt -- anticipating a harvest of no more than one to two mature males a year when the grizzlies emerge from their dens -- it opposed citizen requests for beaver trapping in Birchwood and wolverine trapping in the park.
State biologists objected to the latter principally because there are hardly any wolverines in the park to begin with -- perhaps as few as a dozen -- and their numbers are already being depleted by trapping pressure on the outskirts of the park.
According to area biologist Rick Sinnott, a 1995 aerial survey (the most recent study available) estimated that there are between 11 and 23 wolverines in the entire 1,900 square miles of state game management unit 14C -- an area as large as the state of Delaware -- which encompasses Anchorage, Chugach State Park and the sprawling backcountry to the east. By comparison, the game unit is home to about 1,800 moose, 200 to 300 black bears and 55 to 65 brown bears, Sinnott said.
The wolverine's scarcity around Anchorage is further evidenced by the fairly meager average harvest of 2.6 wolverines a year in the eastern half of the game unit -- outside the park -- where trapping is permitted. And that alone exceeds the game management standard of not harvesting more than 5 to 10 percent of a species' population, Sinnott said.
Under the change, any trapper may now take two wolverine in certain areas of the park between Dec. 15 and Jan. 31.
"I just couldn't believe that they passed it," Sinnott said. "Even if they harvest just one more (wolverine) a year than they do now, that's going to be a 20 percent harvest rate -- which I don't think any wolverine population can sustain."
Initiating the proposal, the Southcentral chapter of the Alaska Trappers Association requested that the park's wolverine season be allowed in areas that are already open to trapping for coyote, lynx, marten, weasel and red fox during various winter seasons.
Those areas include the Bird Creek, Indian Creek and Peters Creek drainages, the upper reaches of Ship Creek above Fort Richardson, and the entire eastern boundary of the park. Trapping would not be permitted in the front range closest to town, nor in the Eagle River or Eklutna Lake areas, nor on the military bases.
Responding to the board's questionnaire, which asked who the proposal is likely to benefit, Trappers Association chapter president Lynn Keogh wrote: "Trappers." To the question of who is likely to suffer, he answered "No one."
Keogh couldn't be reached by telephone over the weekend to respond further. But Aaron Bloomquist, chair of the Anchorage Fish and Game Advisory Committee, said his group endorsed the proposal.
"The park is already open to lynx trapping," Bloomquist said, "and we saw it as an aligning of seasons type thing. Currently if you caught (a wolverine) in the park you had to turn it over to the state, or let it go -- which is impossible with wolverines. You pretty much have to kill them."
In urging the board to deny the proposal, state biologist Jesse Coltrane also warned that allowing wolverine trapping in portions of the park could endanger dogs -- since trappers usually pursue wolverines with baits and lethal steel traps, such as the 330 Conibear, designed to kill medium to large prey in less than five minutes.
Dogs that accompany skiers and backpackers are not required to be leashed in Chugach State Park, except in campgrounds and trail heads, Coltrane said. For the most part, that hasn't been a problem since it's never been legal in the park to trap wolves or wolverines -- which might necessitate larger traps. But wolverine trapping could change that, Sinnott said later.
"There is going to be all these baits out there with these killer traps on them, and they're going to kill dogs," he said. "It's almost inevitable."
Bloomquist, however, doesn't expect there to enough interest in wolverine trapping in the park to create those kinds of conflicts.
"There are very few people who specifically target wolverines as a mainstay," he said. "So I would be very surprised if it encourages any trappers who aren't already trapping there to go trapping."
Addressing the board, Anchorage resident Kneeland Taylor, who described himself as someone who's been climbing peaks in the Chugach his whole adult life, said he would miss the wolverines if they disappear. He's only spotted one in 30 years of looking, but he still treasures the memory.
"I've seen tracks a few times," Taylor said. "It's rare -- and it adds hugely to an experience."
Board member Bob Bell of Anchorage, however, told Taylor he'd been "banging around Chugach State Park" even longer.
"I've never seen a wolverine," Bell said. "You've seen one. So what value do they have to us as 'viewable wildlife' -- I mean, if you never see them?"
In the board action that commenced the following weekend, the members spent about 10 minutes discussing wolverine trapping in Chugach State Park before casting their votes.
Board member Ted Spraker of Soldotna noted that trapping lynx and other medium-to-small game has already set a precedent in the park, and very few wolverine are likely to be taken.
"I just don't see where this is going to be a huge issue," he said.
Bell and Spraker and board members Cliff Judkins of Wasilla, Richard Burley of Fairbanks and Paul Johnson of Unalakleet ultimately voted to approve the proposal. Board members Ben Grussendorf of Sitka and Ron Somerville of Juneau voted against. The regulation passed, 5-2.
Daily News reporter George Bryson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.