FAIRBANKS - The Department of Fish and Game stopped shooting wolves from a helicopter in the eastern Interior on Thursday after killing 66 wolves in five days as part of an intensified and controversial predator control program to increase caribou and moose numbers in an area east of Tok.
State officials were hoping to kill as many as 150 wolves by tracking them via airplane and shooting them from a helicopter, but a lack of both fresh snow and money prompted the department to temporarily halt the program.
Asked what it would take to get department sharpshooters back in the air, Fairbanks regional supervisor David James replied, "More money and more snow."
The department had $100,000 set aside for the helicopter shootings, and James said the agency had used "probably 80 percent" of that as of Wednesday.
In the mean time, James said the department will analyze the results of action taken so far and decide what areas to target next, if any.
The department had been targeting the area that serves as the calving grounds for the Fortymile Caribou Herd, which numbers about 40,000. By killing wolves on the calving grounds now, biologists hope to boost calf survival when the herd's cows drop their calves in two months. Most of the wolves taken this week were killed in close proximity to the caribou herd, James said.
"We're going down there to review the latest data and maps," said James, who was en route to Tok on Thursday afternoon. "We're going to regroup and see what the data indicates."
Ironically, the department pulled the plug on the program one day after the animal conservation group Defenders of Wildlife went to court in Anchorage to file for an injunction to stop it.
The potential for legal intervention had nothing to do with the department's decision to temporarily halt the program, James said. Wolves were getting harder to find in the area the department was focusing on, and money was getting tight.
"After the first few days of an operation like this the productivity curve falls steeply," James said. "At some point you make the decision it's just not worth it anymore."
The fact the department killed less than half the number of wolves that it was hoping to is proof there aren't as many wolves in the area as biologists estimate, said Wade Willis, the Alaska representative for Defenders of Wildlife.
"They couldn't find any more wolves to kill," Willis said. "They ran out of wolves; it's plain and simple."
The animal welfare group, which has been opposed to the state's predator management policies and has stepped up its attack in recent months by targeting Gov. Sarah Palin in ads and on a special Web site, has long maintained that the department inflates its wolf population estimates to allow more wolves to be killed.
"They want that population estimate to be as high as possible," he said.
But James said the department is confident in its population estimates and will use information gathered from tracking flights this week to "confirm or readjust what the population estimate was last fall." It could be that the department will find that enough wolves have been taken to meet the program's objective, though James doubts that will be the case.
"In the majority of our experience, when we've gone in and got more information to see where we stand, it's been very consistent with where we thought we were," he said. "Each step of the way, as we get additional information, we sit down and analyze it to convince ourselves we're still within the program's guidelines.
"I'm very confident in our ability to do this right and not exceed the population level that's stated in our management plan," he said.
The state estimates there are about 400 wolves in the control area and the management objective is approximately 100 wolves. Prior to the helicopter strategy, the department relied on hunters, trappers and private pilot-gunner teams in fixed-wing aircraft who received permits from the state to kill wolves in the area. The pilot-gunner teams had taken only about 30 wolves this winter prior to the department's decision to use a helicopter.
Private pilot-gunner teams with permits from the state can continue to take wolves until April 30 or conditions are such that planes can no longer land to retrieve wolves that are shot. The wolf trapping season also closes April 30.
Even though the department didn't kill as many wolves as it set out to, James said the program was a success.
"Considering the portion of the total control area we covered we're pretty pleased at this point," James said. "There are substantial portions of that control area that we haven't covered yet."
Of the 66 wolves that were killed, none were believed to be wolves that live mainly in the 2.5 million-acre Yukon Charley Rivers National Park and Preserve, which is adjacent to the state's control area.
The National Park Service expressed concern about the state's plan to shoot wolves from a helicopter because federal officials worried that some of the estimated 30 wolves that are the subject of biological studies in the preserve would be shot and killed. The state agreed not to shoot any wolves wearing radio collars and to limit the number of non-collared wolves shot in some packs. The park service provided state officials with the frequencies of radio-collared packs in the preserve so hunters would know if they were targeting those wolves.
"As far as I understand, none of the 66 wolves they took had (radio) collars," preserve superintendent Greg Dudgeon said. "The time they've been in the air they haven't picked up any of the frequencies of our packs."
Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587.