Wolf Song of Alaska News

Caribou in Trouble

Consider Peninsula Wolf Control Plan Against Fall Ballot Initiative

Editorial / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / March 12, 2008

The Southern Alaska Peninsula Caribou Herd has declined to the point that all hunting, including limited subsistence harvest, has been stopped.

Without doubt, this herd is at a point where managers can not biologically justify hunter harvest of even a few animals to help feed a remote village. It has dropped from about 4,000 animals in 2002 to roughly 600 this year. State biologists report a calf survival rate of about one per 100 cows. They spotted only four surviving calves in the herd last fall.

Also without doubt is that state law calls upon our game management agency and state board to do something about this. A closed subsistence hunting season clearly is not consistent with a constitutional mandate for "sustained yield."

What is interesting is that this scenario arises in a year when voters are to consider a ballot measure that would prohibit aerial wolf control except in a "biological emergency" - a term that is not clearly defined.

Yet some may argue that the situation on the Peninsula is not a biological emergency. Alaskans should take note of these objections when considering what they will vote upon. It is not just about aerial shooting, it limits when - and if - the state can do this at all.

In this instance, the board chose to allow state biologists to shoot wolves from helicopters in an attempt to give the caribou calves a break from predators. Given the terrain, local weather and lack of snow cover, this is the only practical method in the area. Biologists will have helicopters in the area early in the spring to carry out other tasks, so this helps save costs. Fixed-wing aircraft will be in use surveying the herd.

While the department hasn't set specific timing, this scenario sets up a possibility for the department to specifically target wolves near areas where calves are about to be born. The wolves can be spotted by pilots of fixed-wing aircraft, and helicopters can be efficiently directed.

With declines of several Southwest caribou populations in recent years, the animals have been studied well.

Biologists report the southern herd cows are healthy, and pregnancy and birth rates indicate nutrition and disease are not a problem. What happens is that most calves are killed by predators before they gain enough strength to elude them.

The local wolf population has recovered from a rabies outbreak in the late 1990s and enjoys plentiful food sources in this area, including marine mammals and salmon. Caribou calves, it appears, are a seasonal opportunity for a wolf population that can continue to grow regardless of the availability of caribou.

It seems possible the southern herd could disappear under that scenario - but that is open to debate. What is certain is that without intervention the herd would remain quite small and local villagers would have to do without caribou meat for years to come.

The state Board of Game made the right choice here. What Alaskans should consider is whether this seems a reasonable move to them and if "biological emergency" rules are the right move for our future.

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