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Wolf Control Halted in Alaska's Nelchina Basin

Tim Mowry / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / April 4, 2007

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game on Tuesday halted its wolf control efforts in the Nelchina Basin, one of five areas in which aerial shooting of wolves is allowed in the state.

State wildlife biologists said hunters, trappers and aerial gunners have killed enough wolves to bring the wolf population in Game Management Unit 13 down to an objective set by the Alaska Board of Game, according to a news release issued by the Department of Fish and Game.

Aerial gunners killed 33 wolves this winter, while hunters and trappers so far have reported taking an additional 62 animals, putting the total harvest at 95 wolves. That number will likely climb higher in the next month.

As of Monday, wildlife biologists in Glennallen estimated the spring wolf population in Unit 13 at 162 wolves. The Game Board's population objective is 135 to 165 wolves.

While aerial shooting of wolves has been suspended, hunting and trapping for wolves remains open through April. Hunters and trappers typically take about a dozen wolves in April.

However, biologists predict the wolf population will rebound to more than 250 next fall. If that occurs, the department will resume its aerial control program in December.

"We're pretty much into maintenance mode now, where we're basically taking the annual production," Fish and Game spokesman Bruce Bartley said.

This is the fourth winter of aerial wolf control in Unit 13. Aerial crews have killed 288 wolves since control efforts began in January 2004.

This marks the second year in a row the spring wolf population estimate in Unit 13 has been reduced to within the state's objective. Last spring, the population estimate was 157 following control efforts. Prior to that, the last time the objective was met was in 1989.

The wolf population in Unit 13 increased dramatically in the 1990s and was estimated as high as 520 in 2001, a level that biologists say caused a more than 50 percent decline in the moose population.

According to surveys the last few years, biologists say the moose population in Unit 13 is rebounding as a result of fewer wolves. The moose population in count areas is up 14 percent since 2000, and the number of calves has increased twofold. The number of yearling bulls has more than doubled in that time, also. Calf and yearling moose are the primary targets of predation by wolves and bears.

Biologists also say bull numbers in Unit 13 are up by 45 percent and that last fall's harvest of 685 bulls was the highest since 2000. Moose hunting in Unit 13 is limited to bulls only.

In addition to the 33 wolves taken in Unit 13, an additional 55 wolves have been reported killed by aerial gunners in the other four areas of the state where wolf control has been initiated, bringing to 88 the total number of wolves taken this winter in the controversial control program.

The kill total is far below the state's goal of 680 wolves in the control areas this year. Lack of snow this winter has made tracking wolves difficult, Bartley said.

In an attempt to increase the wolf kill in control areas, Gov. Sarah Palin announced two weeks ago that the state would offer a $150 bounty on wolves taken in the control areas.

However, a judge last week ruled the bounty was illegal and ordered the state to rescind it after several preservation groups, including Friends of Animals, Defenders of Wildlife and the Alaska chapter of the Sierra Club, sued the state to kill the bounty and halt the wolf control program.

So far, Unit 13 has the highest wolf kill of any of the five control areas. A total of 32 wolves have been reported taken in Unit 16 west of Cook Inlet, and 18 wolves have been reported killed by aerial gunners in Units 12 and 20 in the Fortymile. Only three wolves have been taken in Unit 19A, and two have been killed in Unit 19D.

More than 660 wolves have been killed in four years in the five control areas. State biologists estimate the number of wolves in Alaska at between about 7,000 and 11,000.

Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587 or tmowry@newsminer.com

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