FAIRBANKS — For the second year in a row, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game plans to use a helicopter to shoot wolves from the air in the Fortymile region near Tok as part of its predator control program.
In a report to the Alaska Board of Game in Fairbanks on Thursday, Tok-area biologist Jeff Gross said the department will take to the air as soon as there is fresh snow to help track and find wolves.
“We’re hoping for new snow to cover up the old tracks,” he said. “Generally, we like to go out within six or eight days after snow.”
Last year in March, department personnel shot and killed 84 wolves during six days using fixed-wing aircraft to find the wolves and a helicopter to shoot them.
The upper Tanana/Fortymile region is one of five areas in the state where aerial shooting or landing and shooting of wolves is allowed under the department’s predator management program.
Hunters doing so must have a permit from the state.
But, similar to last year, Gross said aerial wolf hunters haven’t come close to killing the number of wolves the state wants to cull from the Fortymile region to boost moose and caribou numbers. Only eight wolves had been killed by aerial hunters at last report, he told the board, which is in the midst of a 10-day meeting in Fairbanks scheduled to end Sunday.
The department wants to cull almost 200 of the estimated 300 wolves that biologists said range in the control area.
The total harvest of wolves in the control area last year was 220 wolves, with helicopter shooting accounting for 84 of the kills; harvest by gunners in fixed-wing aircraft, 49; and trapping and hunting, 87.
Gross said he would consider it a success if the department is able to approach last year’s helicopter harvest of 84 wolves. Lack of snow this winter has hindered control efforts by gunners in fixed-wing aircraft and has hampered trapping and hunting of wolves, so there might be more wolves, Gross said.
“Trappers and control permittees had been a lot more successful to date last year,” he said.
Predator control appears to have a positive effect on the moose and caribou populations in the Fortymile region, Gross told the board.
“I’d say we’re seeing progress on both fronts in part because of it,” he said. “It’s a piece of the puzzle, with weather being the driving factor.”
After Gross’ report, game board members Al Barrette and Ted Spraker suggested the department explore the possibility of employing helicopter shooting in other areas to meet harvest goals quicker so aerial control programs won’t be needed.
Barrette encouraged the department’s “helicopter cleanup,” as he put it, and said the department should consider using a helicopter earlier in the season, especially in forested areas such as the Fortymile country.
“Once you get the wolf populations down to a lower level, trappers have shown they can get the job done on the ground,” said Barrette, a trapper from Fairbanks.
Spraker agreed, saying the department should focus on areas where trappers and aerial gunners haven’t been successful.
“The department should not wait until March and April and risk losing the snow you need to do this,” said Spraker, of Soldotna. “Go in there after the first snow in the fall.
“If you’re able to remove some of those important packs, they won’t be operating on your moose all winter,” he said. “If we can be as efficient in these areas, we can reduce the number of years we’re involved in predation control.”
Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587.