More than 100 wildlife professionals have slammed state efforts to produce more moose and caribou by killing wolves and bears, saying the new predator control programs ignore the best advice developed by the National Research Council.
The wildlife experts charge in a letter to state officials that Alaska has abandoned the rigorous scientific approach for predator control recommended by the council's panel in 1997, and warn that long-term consequences may outweigh any short-term increases for Alaska's ungulates gained through predator control.
The letter's lead author, Anchorage biologist Vic Van Ballenberghe, called the state's new approach "a recipe for disaster."
But top state wildlife officials say the criticism is off-base. Alaska follows the basic precepts of the national study, they say, but it can't -- and need not -- treat every predator control program as if it were an experiment, as the wildlife professionals suggest.
"This is a predator management program, not a research program," said Wayne Regelin, acting commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Former Gov. Tony Knowles sought in the mid-1990s to solve the long-running debate over killing wolves in Alaska by asking the research council to review previous predator control programs and make recommendations on future efforts. The $300,000 study was nearly two years in the making.
The authors made several sweeping conclusions, including that Alaska's wildlife populations fluctuate widely, that wolves and bears can cause moose and caribou declines, and that ungulate populations can rise if a large percentage of the predators are removed for at least four years.
They also found that predator control won't create more moose or caribou if the prey species don't have enough food, or if severe winters curb their natural reproduction, or if human hunters are allowed to over-harvest.
On several counts, the council found that state biologists didn't have enough information about habitat to judge whether predator control would work, or enough about bears to know why a given moose or caribou population was failing. It recommended the state consider every predator control plan an experiment, and check regularly to see if its efforts were getting results.
After the report came out, the state drastically revised a proposed program to kill wolves around McGrath. Based on additional research over several years, the Alaska Board of Game approved a new plan in 2001 that included relocating dozens of black and brown bears from the area and eliminating hunting seasons, as well as killing wolves. The area was to be managed as an experiment, with close study of moose survival and habitat.
The state should take that same approach for every predator control plan, but it hasn't, according to Van Ballenberghe and the dozens of state and federal biologists and academics nationwide who signed the letter addressed to Gov. Frank Murkowski, the Alaska Legislature and the Game Board.
Since the McGrath program was adopted, the Game Board has targeted hundreds of wolves and dozens of grizzly bears in six additional areas with far less information at hand. The letter calls it "a step backward from earlier programs" that incorporated the council's recommendations.
"You don't just go out there and say we have a problem of too few moose and too many wolves, and the easy solution is to kill some wolves," said Van Ballenberghe, a retired U.S. Forest Service biologist who still does moose research in Denali National Park and Preserve.
It's important to study each area because they're all different, he said. And it's crucial to scientifically determine the moose or caribou population goals and harvest objectives for each area.
"To set them unrealistically high gives hunters a false expectation we can reach those numbers," Van Ballenberghe said. If habitat or over-hunting are responsible for limiting the moose population, predator control won't work. "It's a poor approach to conservation of these resources," he said.
The state's top game biologists dispute the need to study every area before predator control begins.
"What the National Research Council suggests we do is measure the results -- that's where efforts have been weak in the past," said Matt Robus, director of Fish and Game's wildlife division. "It does not require us to do research-level work for every program."
His boss, Regelin, said that, contrary to Van Ballenberghe's assertion that the state isn't basing its plans on good data, "We have done extensive long-term research for 25 years in a variety of areas, and now we're applying that good science."
In one of the newest areas approved for wolf control, unit 19A near Aniak, the state spent thousands of dollars collaring moose calves. The results weren't surprising, Regelin said:
"It was the same thing we already knew -- you can tell when mortality was due to bears or wolves" by the time of year in which the animal was killed. "It's plenty close enough for management."
Robus denied that the Game Board has set unrealistic population and harvest objectives for moose and caribou, figures that are used to justify predator control. It spent two years setting the figures and used a variety of data in its decisions.
"The board did not leap to the highest possible number," he said.
The two managers contend that Alaska is still following the advice set out by the council in 1997. But, said Regelin, "A lot of people can interpret a couple-hundred-page book in a lot of different ways."
The Game Board will consider expanding predator control efforts to additional areas of the state when it meets in March.
Daily News reporter Joel Gay can be reached at email@example.com or at 257-4310.
Scientists' letter on predator control to Gov. Frank Murkowski
Download the pdf document by clicking here
or at http://www.adn.com/static/images/pdf/NRCScientistLetter.pdf
The National Research Council's study "Biological Standards and Guidelines for Predator Control in Alaska"
Download the pdf document by clicking here
or at http://www.adn.com/static/images/pdf/NASStudyPaper.pdf
The Alaska Department of Fish & Game's Web site, at http://www.wildlife.alaska.gov/management/fur/wolves/wolfhome.cfm , has information on wolves and wolf control in Alaska