Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Alaska wolf control effort fails to hit target

By TIM MOWRY - Staff Writer

Wednesday, May 03, 2006 - The high price of fuel is just one reason the number of wolves taken in the state's aerial wolf-control program this winter was lower than expected, according to state wildlife officials. While they still have two days to report wolves taken before the program ended on April 30, aerial gunners had reported taking 153 wolves in five areas of the state this winter as of Tuesday. State wildlife officials were aiming for a harvest of up to 400 wolves.

Bad weather, a court ruling that halted the entire program for a week in January and a closure in Game Management Unit 16B west of Anchorage during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race also conspired against aerial wolf hunters. "There's a lot of factors," said Fish and Game public information officer Bruce Bartley in Anchorage.

This is the third year in a row the state has issued permits to shoot wolves from airplanes or to land and shoot them in five areas. A total of 564 wolves have been killed in the past three years.

The program has stirred a controversy over using airplanes to kill wolves, an often-debated topic in Alaska. Voters have twice voted down aerial hunting of wolves through ballot initiatives but the Alaska Legislature circumvented those results by passing a law that allows the state to issue permits to qualified pilots and gunners in areas of "intensive management," a term for areas that have moose and caribou populations that have been deemed important for human consumption.

The goal is to reduce wolf populations in each of the specified areas by as much as 80 percent annually, leaving a minimum number of wolves to ensure they are not wiped out. From the state's perspective, the goal is not to kill wolves as much as it is to increase important moose and caribou populations, said Kim Titus, deputy director for the Division of Wildlife Conservation. "The goal isn't continued high harvest of wolves, it's getting moose out of a predator pit," he said.

After one or two years of aerial control there are definitely fewer wolves in some areas, Bartley said. That's evidenced by shrinking number of wolves killed in each area. "It's just like trapping," Bartley said. "People get a lot of what they're after when there's lot of them out there and they don't get many of them when there's not a lot of them out there."

This year's wolf kill might have been higher if the price of fuel was lower, Bartley said. Aviation gas was selling for more than $4 a gallon for much of the winter. With wolf pelts bringing an average of about $200, it doesn't take much flying time to go in the red. "I think the price of gas has really put a cramp on things for a lot of people," Bartley said. "They're not going to go unless conditions are perfect."

That wasn't the case for much of the winter, especially in Southcentral Alaska, where weather played a key role for wolf hunters in Unit 16B west of Cook Inlet. Aerial gunners killed only 23 wolves in Unit 16B this year compared to 91 last year.

"I think that's mostly a function of the weather," said Bartley. The region suffered a snow drought the first half of the winter and when it finally did snow, there were long stretches between snowfalls, making it hard to track wolves. "The snow got old and tracked up and it would be that way for a long time," Bartley said.

It didn't help that hunters lost two prime weeks to suspensions in the program in Unit 16B. The program was shut down for a week in January as a result of a court ruling in a lawsuit by Connecticut-based animal rights group Friends of Animals and it was halted for another week in early March for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which runs through Unit 16B.

All those factors contributed to a much lower wolf harvest in the unit. Aerial hunters took only 23 wolves compared to 91 last year, the first for aerial wolf control in the unit.

The largest number of wolves was taken in Unit 13, the Nelchina Basin, where hunters killed a reported 61 wolves. The fact that number is down from 67 last year and 127 two years ago is an indication there are fewer wolves in that area, Titus said. Unit 13 is also one of the areas where biologists have seen an upward trend in moose calf survival, he said. "That's one of places we are starting to see an effect," Titus said.

The program's biggest success story this year was in Unit 19A, the central Kuskokwim River region, where aerial gunners killed 47 wolves. Combined with the effort of local trappers and hunters, the state reached its harvest quota in Unit 19A and closed the season on April 3. Aerial gunners killed 43 wolves in Unit 19A last year.

Aerial hunters reported taking only 18 wolves in Units 12 and 20E near Tok this winter after bagging 61 wolves last year. Only four wolves were taken in a small part of Unit 19D east near McGrath, an experimental area where the state is trying to remove all the wolves from a 528-square mile area to monitor the effect it has on moose.

It will take several years before hunters see the results of the current wolf-control programs, Titus pointed out. Each of the five programs are five-year plans. "It's not like we've got a bunch of adult moose running around yet," Titus said. "It takes a number of years for them to grow up and for their cohorts to be added to the population."

Friends of Animals, which has led the attack against the state's predator control program, will keep up the fight, executive director Priscilla Feral said. The group is considering another lawsuit depending on what the state Board of Game does in a special meeting May 12-14 in Anchorage. The Game Board will be taking up several proposals it tabled during a March meeting in Fairbanks that would expand or add areas to its current wolf-control program. "We will continue to intervene," Feral said.

Friends of Animals has been running ads in several major magazines, as well as the nation's largest newspaper, USA Today, to bring attention to Alaska's wolf-killing program, Feral said. "If you shoot wolves to save moose and then you shoot the moose, you're either out of your mind or in Alaska," the ad says above a pack of wolves in a snowfield.

The ad will also run in several magazines including Harper's, The Nation, The Progressive Magazine and Vegetarian Times. The group is spending more than $60,000 on the ad campaign, Feral said. A half-page ad that ran in USA Today last month cost the group $40,000, she said.

And while a line on the bottom of the ad asks for contributions, Feral said the ads are not intended as a fundraising ploy. It also asks travelers to boycott Alaska because it says tourist dollars condone the slaughtering of wolves. "The ads aren't designed for (fundraising)," she said. "It's to get attention. We're getting the word out there."

  • Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

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    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    This statement is coming from a real Alaskan. I live there. The peolpe from Friends of Animals don't know what they are talking about. The reason people are killing wolves in akaska is to boost the moose and caribou population. Once enough wolves are taken the restrictions will be reinstated. The moose population will grow and at the same time the wolf population will too enabeling the two populations to grow in check. This allows the hunters to hunt, the wolves to eat and the moose and caribou to thrive.

    3/01/2007 8:45 PM  

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