About two dozen wolves from several packs that prey on an Alaska Peninsula caribou herd will be killed by airborne state wildlife officials because the herd is teetering toward extinction, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Between two and four wolf packs in Game Management Unit 9D -- extending roughly from Port Moller to False Pass on the Aleutian arc -- are keeping the southern Alaska Peninsula herd's numbers from rebounding after years of decline, according to Fish and Game officials. The herd, which had an estimated 10,000 animals in 1983, now has about 600.
Though it is unclear exactly how many wolves are in the area, about 25, or a minimum of 20 percent, are scheduled for destruction beginning as early as this spring, said wildlife biologist Cathie Harms, speaking by phone from the Board of Game conference in Fairbanks, where the board made its decision Thursday night.
"Usually in predator control programs, attempts are made to remove entire packs," Harms said. "Whether or not that's the case here remains to be seen."
While the adult population in the herd is reportedly healthy, calves are unable to survive long enough to replace older animals because the wolves have been killing newborn calves in calving grounds before they are mobile, Harms said. The actual number of wolves killed will depend on how many wolves are stalking the calving grounds, she said.
The primary goal of this aerial predator control operation will be to give the calves a chance to survive and replenish the herd, which is an important one for subsistence users and currently can't sustain a harvest, Harms said. Fish and Game staffers will use a helicopter to spot and kill the wolves from the air, the first time such an operation has been undertaken since the mid-1980s, Harms said.
A survey of the herd in 2006 discovered only one calf per 100 cows, according to Fish and Game. That number decreased to 0.5 calves per 100 during a thorough survey conducted last year, Harms said.
"Time is of the essence in this particular case," she said. "We've already lost two calf crops. We've had two years of no calves being added to the population."
While brown bears -- also numerous in the area -- are of concern as well, they do not kill as many calves as wolves do, she said.
The caribou herd ranges extensively onto the federal lands of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, where predator control can not be conducted; however, most calving takes place on state land, where it can.
Throughout the effort, the wolf and caribou populations will be monitored as officials try to strike the right balance that will allow the herd to grow without killing more wolves than necessary, Harms said.
"There's never been a predator control program in the state of Alaska that's caused wolf packs to be threatened or endangered," she said. "They may be absent from an area for a relatively short period of time but they immigrate back in from surrounding areas at a very fast clip."
In other cases, wolves have bounced back to pre-control levels in about three to five years, she said.
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