Worried that efforts to halt the state's aerial wolf-kill program will succeed, residents along the Kuskokwim River want state game managers to resurrect an ancient form of predator control - killing pups in their dens.
Wolf numbers seem to be rising in the wilderness around Aniak, McGrath and other villages, and the task once carried out by young Native men should be employed again to help moose populations recover, said Greg Roczicka, natural resources director with Orutsaramuit Native Council in Bethel.
That tribal government and a Fish and Game advisory committee along the central Kuskokwim River have submitted separate proposals asking the Board of Game to overturn regulations outlawing the practice.
The Game Board is scheduled to consider the proposals at upcoming meetings later this month and in February.
At least one group plans to speak against the idea.
"We're fervently opposed to it," said John Toppenberg, director with Alaska Wildlife Alliance. "It's been illegal in Alaska for a long time and deservedly so. It's a Stone Age concept of wildlife management and has no place as a management tool for civilized people. It's just barbaric."
The tribal council and advisory panel also want the board to let hunters kill bear cubs in dens. Along with wolves, bears are blamed for low moose numbers around central Kuskokwim villages, said Doug Carney of Sleetmute, former chairman of Central Kuskokwim Advisory Committee.
Last year's poor aerial wolf-kill and trapping season in Game Unit 19A, located around Aniak, is factoring into concerns that wolf numbers are rebounding, he said.
Aerial gunners and trappers killed 10 wolves last winter and spring, compared to more than 70 in each of the two previous years, because a lack of snow made tracking and spotting wolves difficult, he said.
This winter, people are seeing wolves more often than in the past two years, and trappers are finding more wolf tracks, said Carney, a trapper.
Roczicka said pup killing is necessary because the central Kuskokwim region once teemed with moose, consistently providing subsistence meat for hunters from Bethel and villages.
Because moose numbers have plummeted in the last five years, subsistence hunting has been eliminated or sharply reduced, he said.
"It was the best moose habitat in the country and it's almost totally gone now," he said. "We want to do everything we can to get moose numbers up back to the way they were."
Reviving the method will allow predator-management to continue if the state's aerial wolf-kill program ends, said Roczikca. Efforts to stop it include a citizen's initiative to appear on the state ballot in August.
Many of the Yup'ik hunters who once controlled wolves in Western Alaska have died, but their stories have passed down, Roczicka said. People who are still alive today often share those stories, including members of Orutsararmuit, Roczicka said.
The group's seven-member council asked Roczicka in the fall to submit the Game Board proposal, he said.
The old practice is referenced in a 1997 report by the National Academy of Sciences called "Wolves, Bears and their Prey in Alaska."
According to the report, Athabascans in the Interior controlled wolf numbers to protect caribou and moose by keeping track of wolf dens in hunting areas and systematically killing pups.
Other methods of wolf control that are no longer practiced include wiping an animal's blood on knives or sharp rocks, he said. Wolves cut themselves as they licked away the blood, bleeding to death through their mouths.
Also, some trappers would coil sharpened baleen or willow sticks into taut wads, cover them with fat and freeze the device, he said. Once gobbled by wolves, the wads would open, piercing stomachs and killing the animal, he said.
Killing pups was more effective than those methods, according to the stories, he said. The state banned it years ago, when Lower 48 "fair chase" and "sportsmanship" standards crept into predator-control efforts in Alaska, he writes in the Game Board proposal.
Game Board chair Cliff Judkins said the proposal is worth discussing, but he didn't know how he would vote on it.
It's worth discussing, he said. Villagers need moose and caribou meat to supplement meager incomes.
"It certainly has merit if it's effective and is done by Native and Eskimo people," he said. "They certainly know where the dens are at and they're not interested in wiping out wolf populations any more than we are."
If the Game Board doesn't pass Orutsararmuit's proposal at its meeting beginning Jan. 25, the central Kuskokwim Advisory committee wants its proposals passed at the Game Board's next meeting beginning Feb. 29. Those proposals only apply to Game Management Unit 19, surrounding Aniak and McGrath.
It's not politically correct but it worked for generations, and wolves survived because they reproduce quickly with large litters, said Carney.
The moose around Sleetmute are showing signs of rebounding thanks to three years of predator control efforts and a locally imposed hunting ban on moose that began in the area two years ago, he said. If predator-control efforts aren't increased, those numbers could change quickly.
"We feel this is intensive management and these things should be automatically part of the tools for controlling predators," he said.
Alex DeMarban can be reached at (907) 348-2444 or (800) 770-9830, ext. 444.