By Fran Mauer | For the Juneau Empire
Jonathan Grass’s story, “State opposes federal decision to not take action on Unimak wolf” in the March 10 Empire, is rife with exaggerated claims the State of Alaska has made regarding subsistence hunting on Unimak while missing the facts about the island and its caribou.
The article reports Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADF&G) officials saying the decision is “harmful to subsistence needs as well as the caribou herd and the wolves,” and that locals have “few red meat alternatives.” Such statements are at odds with reality. Subsistence hunters don’t hunt here as subsistence studies show residents primarily hunt caribou from the Southern Alaska Peninsula herd, which is more easily accessible by boat. All reported harvest of the Unimak herd since 1999 has been by non-local Alaska residents and out-of-staters. The vast majority of hunting is done through two commercial guide services focused on killing trophy bulls. Tellingly, the only False Pass resident who commented during the EA stakeholder meeting asked FWS to adopt the “No Action” alternative.
The article quotes Board of Game Chairman Cliff Judkins saying, “ANILCA requires the federal government to consider subsistence use as the highest priority.” This statement is ambiguous at best. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) does give subsistence use priority over all other uses (e.g. trophy hunting), but merely grants the opportunity for subsistence use only when and where it’s consistent with other refuge purposes.
One of those purposes is conserving fish and wildlife populations in their natural diversity. So in a case such as Unimak where a wildlife population reaches a level where hunting can’t be sustained, ANILCA requires that natural diversity be maintained over subsistence (and other) use.
The Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) has made the right decision in saying no to this predator control plan. The agency’s Environmental Assessment acknowledges little is known about the cause of the herd’s decline and cites multiple possible factors—habitat and nutrition conditions, disease, climate change, predation, and hunting. Several times in the past 80 years the herd has been much smaller than now, with years when no caribou were found. This is a normal condition for caribou populations living on constricted ranges such as the southern Alaska Peninsula and the adjacent Unimak Island. Pioneer caribou biologist and former Fairbanks resident, Olaus Murie documented these fundamental principles on Unimak Island as early as 1925.
Furthermore, it is known that the wolves of Unimak experience periodic rabies epidemics, which result in reduced caribou mortality.
Unimak Island is 93 percent federally-designated Wilderness, and as such, the FWS is required to maintain its untrammeled, wild character. This predator control plan would have violated the most fundamental principles of the Wilderness Act by allowing human intervention of the natural processes at work in the Unimak. And, it would have set a terrible precedent for predator control on National Wildlife Refuges and designated Wilderness elsewhere in Alaska.
• Mauer is a retired wildlife biologist and currently chair of the Alaska Chapter of Wilderness Watch. She lives in Fairbanks.