Hunters armed with big-caliber guns have been swooping over wolf packs in the Upper Yukon region of Alaska in one of the biggest aerial wolf hunts the state has undertaken to help boost the number of caribou. Already, at least 30 wolves have been killed in the program that began over the weekend.
The predator control effort has run into opposition from the National Park Service, which manages the nearby Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, where biologists have been radio-collaring wolves in a long-running study of how predators and prey interact in the 2.5-million-acre wilderness near the Canadian border.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game, aiming to boost the survival of caribou calves, wants to kill up to 328 wolves, leaving behind at least 88 to 103. Killing them, state officials say, will allow the Fortymile caribou herd, ravaged by three years of bad weather and heavy snow, to expand from its current level of 40,000 animals to as many as 100,000.
There are several problems with that, according to the park service. First, park officials believe there aren't nearly as many wolves as state officials estimate, and that killing so many could devastate the packs. Second, the Fortymile herd hasn't approached 100,000 since the early 1900s. And preserve Supt. Greg Dudgeon fears some of the preserve's collared wolves, along with others that typically make the preserve their home, could be shot.
"They [the state] have a mandate to provide for maximum sustained yield. They want to provide more moose and caribou for people to harvest," Dudgeon said. "Our mandate is to manage and provide for healthy populations of wildlife. So we don't place the value of a wolf over a caribou, or a caribou over a moose."
Bad weather kept hunters out of the air on Monday and Tuesday, said Wade Willis, Alaska representative for Defenders of Wildlife, which is trying to stop all aerial hunting of wolves. The state and federal governments have been at odds for several years over predator management, Willis said. "I think it's at the most tense it's been since the state started aggressively liberalizing hunting regulations within preserves. Now that they've gone after a very detailed, long-running National Park Service predator-prey wolf study and are severely impacting that program, the Park Service has finally just had it."
The Department of Fish and Game's regional supervisor, David James, said wildlife managers are using radio trackers to help make sure radio-collared wolves aren't targeted. But he added: "To make the program successful, we need to remove enough wolves to substantially reduce the level of predation ... and our staff will be working toward that goal."
Wolves in other parts of the West, meanwhile, are also about to come into the gun sights, after the Obama administration's decision this month to let stand the removal of endangered-species protections for wolves in the Upper Midwest, Idaho and Montana.
- Kim Murphy