Alaska is waging a war on predators -- wolves and bears -- that allegedly reduce moose and caribou populations important to hunters. But are hunters now taking more game in the predator control areas, and are the benefits of reducing predators worth the costs?
After Frank Murkowski's election in 2002, the Board of Game approved a predator control program in a small portion of the McGrath area. It 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. Only two were taken 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 estimated the cost of McGrath predator control at $1.7 million. This included administrative costs and costs of field studies. By now the costs are surely higher and include $95,000 in attorney's 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 wolf control made significantly more moose available to hunters in the remaining 94 percent of the area. 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. The governor did not remove it. Nor did she veto an additional $400,000 appropriation for 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 have 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 in 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 governors.