While this nation fights an unpopular war in Iraq, Alaska is waging a war of its own. Ours is a war on predators wolves and bears that allegedly terrorize moose and caribou. Both wars are very expensive and people are starting to wonder if the costs are worth the benefits.
The opening battle in Alaska's war on predators began at McGrath in 1995. Local residents there and in adjacent villages complained to the Board of Game (BOG) that moose were scarce. One local pilot described it as "flying over a vast graveyard," which I took to mean that all the moose there were dead.
The BOG approved a wolf control program to take 80 percent of the wolves in that area, but the program was not implemented. In 1996, a statewide ballot measure to ban aerial wolf shooting passed by a wide margin, and a similar measure in 2000 also passed and put McGrath wolf control on the back burner.
But predator control advocates did not give up. They organized a "wolf summit" and brought the issue to the Legislature. A planning team subsequently was told that only 850 moose lived in the entire region and a crisis existed for subsistence users. When a thorough moose census was finally completed in 2001 it indicated 3,600 moose were actually present and the crisis was averted.
After Frank Murkowski's election in 2002 the BOG again approved a predator control program in a small portion of the area that featured aerial shooting of wolves and bear translocation. After bears were moved, moose calf survival doubled, but some bears returned and the translocation effort was suspended after 2004. Only 37 wolves were taken in that area by aerial shooters between 2003 and 2007, including only two last winter from a population estimated at 98. Many of the calves saved from bears died during a severe winter in 2005.
What are the costs of this program? Two years ago the Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) estimated the cost of McGrath predator control at $1.7 million. This included administrative costs and costs of field studies. By now the costs surely are higher and include $95,000 in attorney fees the state paid when it lost a lawsuit challenging the program.
If the total cost was $1.7 million and 37 wolves were taken, the state's cost per dead wolf was nearly $46,000, not including the costs incurred by the aerial shooters. And what benefits have resulted?
Although moose increased 30 percent in just 6 percent of the area, mainly as a result of closing the hunting season and moving bears, there is no evidence that significantly more moose are now available to hunters in the remaining 94 percent of the area as a result of wolf control. And with the small number of wolves taken recently by aerial shooters, there is no indication that continuing wolf control will benefit hunters in the future.
Despite the high costs and lack of benefits, the Legislature supplemented ADFG's budget with $2 million more for predator control (intensive management) in the current budget and the governor's veto pen did not remove it. Nor was an additional $400,000 appropriation vetoed that will fund an ADFG program to sell intensive management to a reluctant public.
This is a thinly veiled attempt to influence the vote on a 2008 ballot initiative that for the third time will ban aerial shooting.
Alaska's predator control programs have been criticized by biologists for being based on weak science. Policymakers lave labeled them as poor public policy that portrays the state as an incompetent steward of our wildlife resources.
If it costs at least $46,000 to remove each wolf at McGrath with no apparent benefit for hunters, when will we demand that the Legislature and the governor stop wasting our money? Let's declare McGrath wolf control a failed experiment and move on.
Vic Van Ballenberghe lives in Anchorage and is a wildlife biologist who was appointed to the Board of Game three times by two different governors.