Ten Anchorage wolves have been killed -- nine of them trapped or shot by the state -- as a six-month predator-control effort on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson wraps up.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game regional supervisor Mark Burch said the effort to remove wolves considered dangerous to humans and their pets succeeded. All the wolves that were killed were on base property.
"We believe we've mitigated the risk," said Burch, who added that one wolf died after being hit by a car not connected to the control effort. "We're not trying to eradicate wolves; we're trying to reduce the risk."
He estimates four wolves remain in the area.
As spring approaches, trapping conditions worsen and bears begin emerging from their dens, hastening the end of the program.
But some contend the wolves didn't pose much risk to begin with.
"I'm not a biologist in any way, shape or form," said Gary Gustafson, chairman of Chugach State Park Citizens' Advisory Board, which criticized Fish and Game for nearly wiping out the wolf population in that portion of the half-million-acre park. "But what's troublesome to us is that the department has decided one size fits all and that the plan is to exterminate all wolves." Burch disagrees, saying that wolves often repopulate areas quickly.
"We want and expect other wolves to move into the area," he said. "We know how valuable that is for diversity."
PUBLIC SAFETY CONCERNS
Fish and Game and base wildlife officers say there was a clear pattern of increasingly bold wolf behavior. Last November, a man walking his dogs on base was briefly surrounded by four wolves. Two women running on Artillery Road with a dog nearly a year ago were treed for about two hours.
Some homeowners in the Eagle River area have reported their pets taken and killed by wolves.
"It's not common for wolves to become aggressive toward people, but when they do, it's a public safety issue," Burch said. "While wolf attacks on humans are rare, this lack of fear and aggression is the kind of behavior seen by wolves that have attacked people in the past -- so we are doing what we can to minimize the risks."
Pete Panarese, another member of the advisory board and a former state parks deputy director, thinks the fears are overblown.
"If somebody sees a wolf and it just looks at them and doesn't run away, is that grounds to shoot the wolf?" he asked. "Sometimes wolves, when they show up, they're checking something out to see if it will go away. They're predators, looking at you to see what you're going to do. A very small number of them keep pushing the envelope."
Food, trash, unsecured dog food and habitation to humans tends to draw them in, Panarese added.
"We have suspicions some of those (wolves) were intentionally fed by people and, of course, we hope that won't happen," he said. That didn't change what he considered his obligation to act.
"We had a public safety threat that was ongoing," he said. "Something could happen and somebody could get hurt. We don't dither with public safety."
However, he noted Fish and Game had not received a single wolf complaint in Anchorage so far this year.
The wolf-control project was a partnership between Fish and Game and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Burch said the state spent $12,374, mostly in staff time.
"If there's a public safety problem, we should give wide discretion to Fish and Game to deal with it," said Kneeland Taylor, a board member with the Alaska Wildlife Alliance. Taylor's bigger concern is a proposal before the Alaska Board of Game, meeting in Anchorage today, to open the far reaches of Chugach State Park to wolf hunting and trapping.
The wolves killed ranged from about 65 pounds to 115 pounds, said state biologist Sean Farley. He and his colleagues will examine bone, hair and tissue samples in an effort to learn more about the wolves' diet. Hides will be sold at the next Fur Rendezvous fur auction.
The winter-long control effort is over for now, but the state may not be done killing wolves.
"We're moving to more of a monitoring mode," Burch said. "But Fish and Game employees continue to have authority to take wolves opportunistically by shooting if in their judgment it's appropriate. It's the same judgment that's involved with dealing with moose, bears and wolves on a daily basis. The public accepts the judgment of professionals on matters like this that involve public safety."
A glimpse into the public attitudes toward wildlife in Anchorage can be gleaned from a survey conducted for Fish and Game last year using telephone interviews and focus groups.
When asked what was the most important wildlife issue facing Anchorage residents, 56 percent pointed to increasing wildlife numbers in populated areas. Most singled out moose and bears. Only 1 percent mentioned wolves.
At the same time, some 70 percent of those surveyed thought Anchorage residents should learn to live with some conflicts or problems with wildlife. Just 17 percent agreed with a statement that some wildlife is dangerous and that they did not want potentially dangerous species in town.