FAIRBANKS — It took almost a month, but the National Park Service has closed sport hunting and trapping for wolves in the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve east of Fairbanks.
The closure is effective today and comes nearly a month after state wildlife biologists in a helicopter shot and killed four wolves, including two wearing National Park Service radio collars, near the boundary of the preserve as part of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s predator management program.
The incident on March 17 triggered a brouhaha between state and federal officials because the Department of Fish and Game had agreed not to shoot any collared wolves that were part of a park service research program.
However, because of what officials eventually described as “a series of misunderstandings” involving radio frequencies, biologists ended up shooting the two collared wolves and two others that comprised the Webber Creek pack. The pack was one of seven that preserve biologists are tracking as part of a 16-year study.
Park service officials said the population of wolves in packs that frequent the preserve has dropped by 43 percent since last fall, from 42 wolves to 26, including the loss of an entire pack. That compares with past drops of between 11 and 37 percent.
“The closure is based on concern that additional spring sport hunting and trapping in the preserve and the potential for additional predator control action outside the preserve could further decrease the population and alter the preserve’s naturally functioning ecosystems,” a park service press release issued Tuesday stated.
The Department of Fish and Game halted its aerial predator control program on March 19 after just three days because conditions for tracking wolves deteriorated. A total of 15 wolves were killed.
Given the present snow conditions, the Department of Fish and Game doesn’t have plans to conduct any more aerial wolf shootings in the region this year, but that could change with a heavy snowfall, spokeswoman Cathie Harms said.
“Conditions don’t exist out there,” she said “If they did, we’d do it.”
The state was aiming to kill 80 to 100 wolves in the region this spring, and the number of wolves in the control area is well above the minimum population goals established by the department, Harms said.
The park service’s closure pertains only to sport hunters and trappers, not subsistence users, park service spokesman John Quinley said.
“We are not closing the subsistence season,” he said.
The closure is “precautionary,” Quinley said, considering there are only six weeks left in the trapping and hunting seasons and snow conditions are deteriorating rapidly. Mostly, the closure is meant to preserve harvest for subsistence hunters and trappers.
“Any additional take on the sport side could have ended up forsaking opportunity on the subsistence side,” Quinley said.
The park service hosted a public meeting in the village of Eagle attended by more than 30 people and the park service received 19 comments from other groups and individuals regarding the closure, Quinley said.
The temporary closure runs through the end of the hunting and trapping seasons on May 31.
Park service officials initially indicated they would be closing the sport hunting and trapping within a few days of the shootings, but it took nearly a month because of “procedural things that we have to go through to implement a closure like this,” Quinley said.
To his knowledge, no additional wolves had been taken by sport hunters or trappers in the past month, Quinley said.
The park service also addressed another rub with state game managers on Tuesday by making it illegal, in two preserves, for hunters to kill black bear sows and cubs at a den site while using artificial light. The practices historically have been prohibited under state law but were recently authorized by the state Board of Game in two game management units. Those units overlap portions of the Gates of the Arctic National Preserve and Denali National Preserve.
The state game board rejected a park service request to exempt the preserves from those practices by amending the state regulations at its March meeting in Fairbanks.
The park service proposed the bear hunting closure about two weeks ago. Public meetings in Nikolai, Denali Park, Allakaket and Fairbanks drew about two dozen people and elicited a total of eight comments, Quinley said.
Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587.