FAIRBANKS — With a fresh blanket of snow, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game took to airplanes and helicopters Tuesday to track and shoot wolves in the upper Yukon-Tanana region near Tok.
Personnel killed only one wolf on Tuesday but were back in the air Wednesday scouting for more wolves as part of an aggressive predator control plan to boost the population of the Fortymile Caribou Herd, as well as local moose populations in parts of game management units 12, 20E, 20B, 20D and 25C.
It’s the second consecutive year the department has used helicopters to shoot wolves in the Fortymile region because trappers, hunters and aerial gunners haven’t been able to kill enough wolves to meet the department’s goal.
The Fortymile region is one of five intensive management areas in the state where the department has authorized aerial predator control by private pilots and gunners, who can shoot wolves from the air or land and shoot them. It is the only one of the five areas where the state has used helicopters and department personnel to kill wolves.
“We used ADF&G staff last year in the Upper Yukon-Tanana program to make progress toward our objectives, and we’ll try to again this year,” said David James, regional supervisor for the Division of Wildlife Conservation in Fairbanks, in a news release issued late Tuesday afternoon.
Last year, department personnel killed 84 wolves in six days using helicopters in the Fortymile region.
Wolves are tracked and spotted using fixed-wing aircraft, and department staff are called in to shoot the wolves from helicopters.
The department is hoping to kill as many if not more wolves this year, department spokeswoman Cathie Harms in Fairbanks said.
Based on recent wolf surveys, approximately 285 wolves live in the control area. The department’s population objective for the region is about 100 wolves.
Only eight wolves had been taken by air in the control program at last report while the number of wolves taken by conventional hunting and trapping won’t be known until after the seasons end on April 30. Trappers and hunters aren’t required to have wolf hides sealed within 30 days after the season. But Harms said “it’s been a really low year” for hunting and trapping because of lack of snow.
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.
The state’s effort will focus on the area near the Fortymile herd’s calving grounds and extend outward to other areas of the herd’s range.
Only wolves on state land will be shot; the department will not shoot wolves that have been fitted with radio collars by biologists from the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, which is adjacent to the area where the state is focusing its control efforts, Harms said. The state is prohibited from predator control on federal lands.
Yukon-Charley park superintendent Greg Dudgeon asked the state to avoid taking any wolves from packs with wolves wearing National Park Service collars because those packs move in and out of the preserve.
“We’ve asked them to avoid all collars and all animals in those wolf packs,” Dudgeon said.
Department staff will “try to minimize the take of uncollared wolves” in packs with collared wolves but can’t guarantee that uncollared wolves that frequent the preserve won’t be killed, Harms said.
The park service is mandated by federal law to manage for “healthy” wolf populations, Dudgeon said. While the term “healthy” has never been defined, Dudgeon said the park service researched data going back 14 years and found that the average winter mortality rate for wolves that move in and out of the preserve ranged anywhere from 11 to 37 percent.
The park service recently conducted a survey of wolves that move in and out of the preserve and found the population this year has dropped from 42 wolves in the fall to 26 as of mid-February, a 38 percent decrease.
“We’re already at the highest end of normal,” Dudgeon said, noting that the agency’s survey was conducted a month ago and that there’s still more than a month left in the trapping and hunting seasons.
For that reason, the park service asked the state to refrain from killing any wolves associated with the preserve and provided state officials with telemetry equipment that will allow them to identify wolves that range in and out of the preserve.
The state had the opportunity to shoot two collared wolves outside the preserve on Tuesday but let them go, Dudgeon noted. But Dudgeon said state officials told him if given the opportunity they would take up to seven uncollared wolves from several different packs associated with the preserve.
The remains of wolves that are killed with be retrieved, specimens will be collected and pelts will be auctioned to the public at a later date. Specimens will be collected to look for a variety of wildlife parasite and disease research, Harms said.
She doesn’t know how much money the state is spending to charter planes and helicopters for the effort but said it’s not cheap. “It’s one of the more expensive things we do.”
The money comes from the department’s intensive management funds, she said.
Because of the cost involved, Harms said the program will only continue as long as it’s successful. Last year the department spent six days in the air. The department is hoping for the same kind of result this year.
An inch or two of fresh snow fell on Sunday and Monday, which provided pilots and observers enough in which to spot fresh tracks, she said.