Not enough snow this winter may have spared the lives of hundreds of wolves.
Alaska wildlife managers wanted up to 664 wolves killed under the state's aerial wolf-kill program that ended April 30.
Only 175 have been reported killed. That figure should rise, state biologists said: Trappers and hunters have until May 30 to report kills.
It won't increase by much.
Thin snow in many areas made tracking wolves difficult for everyone. High fuel prices kept some pilots and their aerial gunners grounded.
"It's a big deal," said Cliff Judkins, Board of Game chairman. "We ought to increase the (killing) methods to meet our goals, and we keep playing around when we need to get the job done."
Defenders of Wildlife, however, contends the problem wasn't a lack of snow but a lack of wolves. The environmental groups claim the state has overestimated wolf numbers and so many have been killed in past years that they're much harder to find.
The Game Board launched the predator-control effort five years ago after people complained that flourishing wolves were preventing depressed moose populations from recovering.
Wildlife managers operate the program in five areas of the state. This winter, they met the kill goal in just one area, roughly between Glennallen and Cantwell.
The wolves killed as part of the control efforts represent a fraction of the total annual kill of about 1,000 wolves in Alaska. Trappers take most of the animals for their hides.
Nonetheless, the programs have been controversial. Conservation groups and others have protested because state-issued permits allow private gunners to shoot wolves from planes. Kills by trappers and hunters are also counted. The wolf kills are especially low in the three Interior areas -- around Aniak, McGrath and in a massive section of eastern Alaska near the Upper Yukon and Tanana rivers drainage -- because snowfall was severely below normal, Judkins said. Wolves reproduce with such large litters that another bad year could set the program back several years in those areas, he said.
Reports in March that aerial gunners weren't killing many wolves prompted the game board to ask Gov. Sarah Palin to let state biologists shoot wolves from helicopters.
Palin said helicopters should be used only as a last resort. Instead, to accelerate the killing, the Department of Fish and Game decided to offer a $150 bounty for the left front leg of every dead wolf.
Predator-control opponents sued. A state Superior Court judge ordered the bounty stopped before a single payment had been made, saying the department lacked the authority to offer a bounty.
Helicopters were never used, Judkins said. Matt Robus, wildlife division director, told the Game Board that chartering helicopters was too expensive, according to Judkins.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates there are between 7,000 to 11,000 wolves in the state. Wildlife biologists say the population can sustain an annual harvest of 30 percent to 40 percent of that number.
The shortage of kills this year raises doubts about the state's population estimates, said Tom Banks with Defenders of Wildlife.
The state inflates the wolf population, he said, in part because it relies on anecdotal information from hunters who want more wolves killed. Aerial gunners and others have killed too many wolves in the past, so gunners and hunters can't find enough now, he said.
The state's numbers can always be improved, but they're pretty accurate, said Cathie Harms, a Fish and Game biologist in Fairbanks. They're based on aerial surveys and are revised with field reports coming from hunters, trappers and biologists, she said.
In the three Interior areas, private aerial gunners killed 32 wolves, said Harms.
By March, trappers and hunters reported killing nine additional wolves, she said. That number is likely higher now and may continue to increase as more kills are reported, she said.
Still, "it's going to be a low year," she said.
Wildlife managers had hoped to kill up to 427 wolves in those areas, with most of those, up to 322, proposed for the huge area around the Upper Yukon and Tanana rivers. Aerial gunners killed 23 wolves in that area.
Snowfall was 2 feet below normal in some parts of the Interior, she said. The program isn't doomed, because biologists account for bad weather.
"It's not the end of the world," she said.
Some of the program's best data come from heavily studied Game Management Unit 13, roughly between Cantwell and Glennallen. The wolf control program fared better there than elsewhere, state biologists said.
In that unit of 23,000 square miles, wildlife managers suspended this year's aerial killing early last month after 95 wolves were killed. Hunters and trappers killed 62 of those. Aerial gunners took the rest. Kills by trappers and hunters in that area shouldn't increase much, said Bob Tobey, area management biologist in Glennallen.
More than 160 wolves remained in the area early last month, according to a press release.
MOOSE NUMBERS UP
The program is helping improve moose populations there, the state said. Counts of aerial moose surveys show moose have increased by 14 percent, calves are up 110 percent and yearling bulls are up 176 percent.
In the 11,000-square-mile area in the lower Susistna River drainage west of Knik, gunners, trappers and hunters killed 39 wolves, said Tony Kavalok, a Palmer biologist. That's at least 10 short of the goal, Kavalok said.
But enough wolves were killed to help that area's 3,700-plus moose, he said. Between 54 and 99 wolves survive in that area, much of which is too glaciated or mountainous to offer good wolf habitat, he said.
Judkins, the Game Board chair, said the state needs to create a predator-control division, similar to what other states do to control mountain lions or coyotes. It also needs to use helicopters, which will help gunners kill more wolves than if they're shooting from passing planes.
He plans to encourage the governor and others to make that happen.
"We didn't accomplish anything (this year)," he said.
Daily News reporter Alex deMarban can be reached at email@example.com.