FAIRBANKS - The Department of Fish and Game began using a helicopter to kill wolves in the eastern Interior on Saturday in what state officials said is an attempt to turn around what so far has been an unsuccessful aerial predator control program in the region.
Department personnel shot and killed approximately 30 wolves from a helicopter during the weekend in the Fortymile country east of Tok, and the state is hoping to kill another 70 wolves in the same manner before breakup hits, according to spokeswoman Cathie Harms with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks.
"We hope our staff will take in the neighborhood of 100 wolves," Harms said.
That's in addition to wolves that are being taken by permitted private pilot-gunner teams in fixed-wing aircraft and wolves taken by trappers and hunters, she said. All totaled, the state is hoping that about 200 wolves will be killed in the region this winter, Harms said.
That would leave about 100 wolves in the region, according to the department's population numbers. The state estimates there are somewhere between 290 and 328 wolves in the area. The state's predator control plan calls for a minimum of 88 wolves to be maintained in the control area, Harms said.
This marks the second time in the past year the state has used helicopters as part of its controversial aerial wolf control program. The department shot and killed 14 wolves from a helicopter last June to protect the struggling Southern Alaska Peninsula Caribou Herd, and it euthanized 14 wolf pups that were left in a den after the shootings.
The state's aerial predator control program has been a point of national controversy since it was initiated five years ago in five different parts of the state, and it has gained added attention in recent months as a result of Gov. Sarah Palin's rise to national fame as the Republican vice-presidential candidate in the 2008 presidential election. Animal-rights groups such as Defenders of Wildlife have attacked Palin for supporting what they call the aerial "slaughter" of wolves in Alaska.
In the past five years, more than 800 wolves have been killed as part of the aerial wolf control program.
Department of Fish and Game assistant commissioner Corey Rossi said the governor remains committed to managing Alaska's wildlife resources for Alaskans for food and subsistence uses "to preserve our way of life."
Regional supervisor David James with the Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks said poor weather conditions and a lack of snow during the past three years have prevented pilot-gunner teams from killing enough wolves to bolster caribou and moose populations in the region.
"To make the program successful, we need to remove enough wolves to substantially reduce the level of predation on the Fortymile Caribou Herd," James said in a press release.
In the past five years, including this winter, private pilot-gunner teams have killed a total of 166 wolves in the control area. The highest number taken was 60 in 2004, the first year of the state's current aerial predator control program. As of Monday, a total of 39 wolves had been killed this winter.
Despite "very persistent" efforts, private pilot-gunner teams haven't been able to make a dent in the wolf population, Harms said.
"It's a very large area and it's become apparent it's going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to reach those numbers with just permittees," she said. "Helicopters are much more efficient."
The department is using fixed-wing aircraft to spot wolf packs or follow their tracks to find them before calling in gunners to shoot them from a helicopter. Wolves that are killed are retrieved by the helicopter crew, and the hides will be sold in public auctions, Harms said.
The state is focusing its efforts on the Fortymile Caribou Herd's calving grounds adjacent to the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. The National Park Service does not allow any kind of predator control in the preserve.
Preserve superintendent Greg Dudgeon said he was "quite surprised" by news of the state's decision to use helicopters to kill wolves in the region. The Department of Fish and Game notified the park service late Thursday that it would begin shooting wolves from a helicopter on lands adjacent to the preserve on Saturday.
"Our great concern is a good many of those wolves have home ranges that are centered in the preserve," Dudgeon said.
Biologists have been studying wolves in that part of the preserve for almost 20 years, and the park service has a mandate to maintain "healthy" wolf populations for hunting, trapping and viewing, Dudgeon said.
"If a person traveling the upper Yukon (River) corridor doesn't have the opportunity to hear a wolf howl, I'm not doing my job," he said.
The National Park Service requested a no-kill buffer zone around the preserve, but the state refused on the grounds that the Fortymile Caribou Herd's calving grounds rim the preserve boundary and it would be biologically and politically unfeasible to do so, Dudgeon said.
Dudgeon also requested that the department kill fewer than 80 percent of the wolves in the control area and asked the state to review the park service's wolf population estimates, which are lower than the state's. The state refused that request as well, saying its current population estimate is based on state surveys as current as last fall.
In the end, the department agreed to monitor radio collar frequencies in five wolf packs being studied by the park service to determine if any wolves in those packs were wearing park service radio collars. The state agreed not to shoot any wolves in three different packs and to shoot no more than four wolves in two other packs, Dudgeon said. State gunners also will try to avoid taking any wolves wearing radio collars, Dudgeon said.
In addition, if trackers locate a wolf pack on the boundary of the preserve, such as along a ridge, they will make no attempt to kill them or drive them onto state land, Dudgeon said.
"I felt given the short notice that this was an agreement that works for both our mandates," Dudgeon said.
The state will try to what it can to prevent shooting wolves that are being studied by park service biologists, but Harms acknowledged that wolves traveling outside the preserve will be "susceptible" to being shot.
"Our goal is to minimize the effects of this program on their research," she said. "If packs they've collared within the (preserve) range substantially outside of the park to the calving grounds they'll be part of this program."
Wade Willis, the Alaska representative for Defenders of Wildlife, said the use of helicopters to shoot wolves is a "desperate" action by the department "to fix a failed program."
"They've got five years of predator control that's completely failed and now they say we have to get more radical," Willis said. "Then they go after the very wolves that the National Park Service is studying to establish the predator-prey relationship.
"It's an unbelievable move," he said.
Willis said the use of helicopters to kill wolves is a continuation of the state's overly aggressive predator control campaign that is based more on anecdotal evidence than scientific information.
The state discussed using helicopters to kill wolves in the same area last year, but it was too late by the time the department got the OK to do so, Harms said.
Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587.