FAIRBANKS - Sharpshooters participating in the state's aerial predator control program already have killed almost as many wolves in the Fortymile country this year as they did all last winter.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials confirmed that at least 20 wolves have been killed so far this winter, all but one of them in the upper Yukon-Tanana region in game management units 12 and 20E near Tok. Last year, a total of 27 wolves were taken in the same region during the entire season.
The early harvest of wolves in the Fortymile country was a surprise, according to Bruce Bartley, a spokesman for the Department of Fish and Game in Anchorage.
"Historically, that's been one of the areas we've had the most difficulty with getting the harvest we want," Bartley said.
For the fifth straight year in a row, the department is allowing pilot-gunner teams with state permits to shoot wolves from the air or to land and shoot them in five different parts of the state that have been designated as predator control areas. The state has issued more than 80 permits to pilot-gunner teams for the program, Bartley said.
A total of 649 wolves - an average of 162 a year - have been killed since the program began in 2004. Last year, a total of 124 wolves were killed in the five areas: Fortymile (units 12 and 20E), Nelchina Basin (unit 13), McGrath (unit 19D east), central Koyukuk (unit 19B) and west Cook Inlet (unit 16).
The only other region to report any wolf kills this winter was unit 13, where one wolf had been reported killed as of Monday, Bartley said.
The state has a harvest goal in each area based upon the estimated wolf population of the area. In the upper Yukon-Tanana region, for example, the estimated wolf population is between 393 to 431 animals, and the management objective is 88 to 103 wolves, putting the harvest objective anywhere from 290 to 328 wolves.
While the total harvest objective for all five areas is between 453 to 616, there's almost no chance of sharpshooters coming anywhere close to it, judging from past years, Bartley said. The highest number of wolves killed in the previous four years was 275 in 2004, the first year of the program. Since then, the average annual harvest has been 125 wolves a year.
Wade Willis, the Alaska representative for the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife, called the number of November kills in the Fortymile country "a disturbing start" to the state's wolf control program via a press release issued Monday. Defenders contends that wolves are being used as a "scapegoat" for low moose and caribou populations, and the state is conducting the programs based on "anecdotal" information.
"It's time for the department to conduct an honest review of these programs," Willis said.
But Bartley said the programs "have been reviewed and re-reviewed" by the Board of Game and the court system because of lawsuits filed to halt the program, and the department is confident in the biology behind the program.
"(The Department of Fish and Game) has pioneered census and survey techniques that the rest of the world has copied," he said. "We are very confident that the numbers are adequate to administer these programs."
Wolves kill more moose than bears and are able to reproduce and recover from population declines more quickly, which is why they have been the focus of the state's predator control efforts, he added.
The number of wolves killed during the winter isn't as important as the number of wolves remaining in the spring, Bartley said. The department has a much better idea of how many wolves are in each area at the end of the winter than they do now.
"Our wolf population numbers are far more accurate in the spring, after scores of pilots have spent thousands of hours flying in the control areas," he said. "They provide far more information than the department could ever afford to obtain on its own and much more than we have in areas where no control is taking place."
Participation in the program so far this winter has been limited because of lack of snow in most parts of the state and the high price of gas. Darkness also is a factor, Bartley said.
"People don't want to go out there unless they have really good conditions," he said.
Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587.