Only six wolves have been killed so far this winter in Alaska's aerial wolf control program, but state wildlife officials aren't concerned about the low number at this point.
Lack of snow in most of the control areas has kept pilots participating in the program grounded, said Cathie Harms, spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks. Even then, most pilots don't begin hunting wolves in earnest until February or March, when there is more daylight, she said.
"For all practical purposes, we're just starting," Harms said.
Last year, when snow was even more scarce than it has been this winter, pilot/gunner teams had taken only 10 wolves as of Jan. 21. The total take for the year turned out to be 97 wolves, the lowest harvest since the program was initiated in 2003.
Hunters have killed 673 wolves since the aerial control program went into effect in 2003.
This year, the Department of Fish and Game is aiming to kill between 455 and 670 wolves in the five control areas. That number includes wolves killed by private hunters and trappers not participating in the aerial program.
The five control areas are the Nelchina Basin in parts of unit 13; the Fortymile region in unit 12 and parts of units 20B, 20D, 20E and 25C; the central Kuskokwim in unit 19A; McGrath in unit 19D east and unit 16 west of Cook Inlet and Anchorage.
At last report, aerial shooters had killed three wolves in unit 19D east and three in unit 16.
The department has issued permits to 135 pilots to participate in the program and another 143 permits to backseat shooters. The pilot/gunner teams can shoot wolves from the air in some units and land and shoot them in others. Both practices are outlawed for private hunters.
The number of wolves the state wants killed in each area varies depending on what the estimated population is, Harms sad. Each area has a minimum management objective for wolves and the department will halt aerial wolf control in any area when the upper end of the objective is reached, she said.
Surveys to estimate the number of wolves in each control area have not been conducted yet because there isn't enough snow to do so, Harms said. The populations in each area are based on previous estimates and summer pup production, she said.
"We know there are more out there than what the (management) objective is," Harms said. "Since the last survey, we've had a litter of pups and we've had immigration and we weren't at the lower end of the objective in any of the areas."
As the department gets more information from pilots, trappers and biologists who frequent the areas, those population estimates and the coinciding harvest objectives will change, Harms said.
Critics of the state's predator control program question the department's wolf population numbers. The department has yet to release the number of wolves killed by hunters and trappers last season in each control area on top of what was killed by aerial shooters. Without it, it's impossible to evaluate the effectiveness of the program, both biologically and financially, said Tom Banks, the Alaska representative for Defenders of Wildlife.
The fact remains that the state is shooting to reduce wolf populations in the control areas by as much as 80 percent of pre-control populations.
"We have long-standing concerns over the effects of removing 80 percent of a predator from an ecosystem," Banks said.
The Fortymile region, in unit 12 and parts of units 20E, 20B and 25C, has the highest wolf population estimate of the five control areas at 366 to 398 wolves. With a management objective of 88 to 103 wolves, the harvest objective is 263 to 295 wolves.
In unit 13, the control area with the second-highest population, the state is aiming to kill between 77 and 131 wolves.
The current harvest objective in the central Kuskokwim region in unit 19A is 23 to 57 wolves from a population estimated between 59 to 93.
In unit 19D east around McGrath, the estimated wolf population is 86 to 114 and the harvest objective is 46 to 74.
In unit 16 west of Anchorage, the estimate population in the control area is 93 to 152 and the harvest objective is 46 to 113.
Dick Bishop of Fairbanks, president of the hunter-dominated Alaska Outdoor Council, the state's largest sportsman's group, said the AOC continues to support the state's predator control efforts.
With two-thirds of the state owned by the federal government, which does not allow wolf control on its land, there are only a few spots in Alaska where predators can be managed to increase prey populations. The current control programs occur in less than 10 percent of the state, he noted.
"There aren't all that many places where predator-prey management can be successfully undertaken," he said.
Defenders of Wildlife, meanwhile, is one of three sponsors of a proposal to be considered by the state Board of Game at its March meeting in Fairbanks that requests a halt to three of the control programs that will be up for reconsideration. Banks claims the moose harvest around McGrath in unit 19D east has actually gone down since predator control began in the 2003.
Contact staff Writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587.