FAIRBANKS - State wildlife biologists killed 14 wolf pups as part of a predator control program to help a struggling caribou herd on the Alaska Peninsula two months ago.
The 4- to 5-week-old pups were caught at two den sites as biologists were shooting adult wolves from a helicopter near Cold Bay, about 600 miles southwest of Anchorage. Biologists shot and killed 14 adult wolves, including the mothers of the pups.
"As we got on the calving grounds, we took adults and in the course of taking adults we found there were pups," said Doug Larsen, director of the state Division of Wildlife Conservation by phone from Juneau.
"The issue then was do we leave the pups to fend for themselves and starve or do we dispatch them," Larsen said. "Our feeling was that it was most humane to dispatch them."
Each pup was shot in the head.
"It's a quick, humane way to kill them," area management biologist Lem Butler said by phone from King Salmon. "It's a lot less humane than leaving them out there."
Years ago, killing pups at dens, a practice called denning, was a traditional method used by Alaska Natives to control wolf populations. It has been outlawed for decades, though a Native group from Bethel is petitioning the state Board of Game to allow it in that region.
Larsen justified the pup killings as part of a plan to halt a "precipitous decline" in the Southern Alaska Peninsula Caribou Herd. The herd has declined from an estimated 4,100 animals to only 600 in the past six years, in large part because wolves are preying heavily on newborn calves.
"Nobody likes to go out and kill critters, particularly when they're young of the year," Larsen said. "But when you have a specific objective and that's the way to achieve that objective, sometimes you have to do things that you don't like."
Larsen emphasized that killing pups wouldn't become a standard practice for the department.
"I think it's fair to say this was an extremely unique set of circumstances," he said.
Achieving the goal
The department won the approval of the Alaska Board of Game to shoot wolves from a helicopter on the herd's spring calving grounds in March. While there was no specific talk about killing pups, Larsen said "there was never any intent to do anything out of sorts with what the board was expecting."
"The main goal was to turn around what has been a precipitous decline in the Southern Alaska Peninsula Caribou Herd; doing that involved removing wolves," he said. "We killed 28 wolves as part of that program, and they came out of packs we identified and that was in keeping with the plan."
The dens were on state land, just outside the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. Had the dens been on federal land, "we wouldn't have been in position to go in there," Larsen said.
The state issued a press release about the removal of wolves on June 27, but it made no mention of killing pups, only that "wolves from three packs were shot from a helicopter by Alaska Department of Fish and Game staff."
It was the first time in more than 20 years that department biologists shot and killed wolves from the air, and Butler said he felt the use of the helicopter was more pertinent than killing pups.
Omitting the pup killings "wasn't an attempt to hide anything, by any means," Larsen added.
Longtime independent Alaska wolf biologist Gordon Haber, who is often critical of the department's wolf control programs, brought the pup killings to the attention of the News-Miner through a blog on his Web site, www.alaskawolves.org.
Haber, who focuses most of his attention on Denali Park wolves with the support of Outside animal-rights group Friends of Animals, said the department didn't publicize the pup killings because they feared public backlash.
"They understood how strongly most people would react at the thought of state employees helicoptering to a couple of natal dens and, after killing the adult wolves, grabbing (14) frightened young pups and one-by-one blowing their brains out with a pistol," Haber wrote in his blog.
No other options
The department explored options to prevent killing the pups before doing so, Butler said.
"We looked into potentially getting them adopted by a zoo but there were no available options," he said.
This marked the first time Department of Fish and Game personnel have actively participated in a state predator control program in 15 years.
Prior to the action taken on the southern Alaska Peninsula, the state's predator control plan has been limited to an army of private pilot/gunner teams shooting wolves from the air or ground in five different parts of the state, including three Interior regions, to help boost caribou and moose populations. Almost 800 wolves have been killed in the last four years.
An initiative on the primary ballot on Aug. 26 is seeking to make it illegal for anyone except state employees to shoot wolves from the air and only in cases that are declared a "biological emergency" by the commissioner of the Department of Fish and Game.
At this point, it appears that removing the wolves has increased calf survival in the Southern Alaska Peninsula herd, Butler said. Last year, less than 1 percent of newborn calves survived to four weeks old. This year, more than 50 percent of calves are still alive.
While Haber contends the herd will rebound without the help of wolf control, Larsen said state game managers didn't want to take that chance.
"In any circumstance you can say, 'Why don't you stand back and let nature take its course here,'" Larsen said. "As somebody who's responsible for managing Alaska's wildlife and maintaining vital populations, it's hard to watch that kind of thing.
"You can only hold off so long," he said. "We held off as long as we should have."