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Predator Control Criticized

Tim Mowry / Fairbanks Daily News Miner /
Staff and Wire Report / January 8, 2005

Wildlife professionals are lining up against Alaska's predator control program, which they say ignores the best advice by the National Research Council.

More than 100 wildlife professionals, including four faculty members from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, charge in a letter to state officials that Alaska has abandoned the rigorous scientific approach for predator control recommended by a council panel in 1997.

The letter addressed to Gov. Frank Murkowski, the Alaska Legislature and the Game Board warns that long-term consequences may outweigh any short-term gains ungulates may make through predator control, according to the Anchorage Daily News.

Anchorage biologist Vic Van Ballenberghe is the letter's lead author and calls the state's new approach "a recipe for disaster."

Top state wildlife officials, however, defend the program.

"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 in the mid-1990s asked the research council to review previous predator control programs and make recommendations on future efforts. The $300,000 study took nearly two years.

UAF wildlife management professor David Klein, a member of the National Research Council, was the only Alaska biologist to sit on the panel that studied the predator control issue in 1995. Klein, now a professor emeritus, signed the letter because he questions the science the state is using to justify the programs.

"The rapid increase in control programs is far exceeding the ability of Fish and Game biologists to come up with the data to justify them," said Klein, who taught at UAF for 35 years.

While he is not opposed to predator control, Klein said it should be done scientifically instead of politically.

"Management of bears and wolves, as with other wildlife, must be based on sound science if it is to be effective in achieving the desired goals, as well as in the use of taxpayers' money," Klein said. "If you're going to do wolf control you have to know what you're doing, you have to know what you want to accomplish and you have to have data saying wolves are the limiting factor on the ungulate population."

In some cases, biologists are finding out that bears play a bigger predatory role than wolves, Klein noted.

"When you can justify the need for wolf control it should be designed in a way you can learn from it," he said. "I realize it's costly to do that but in the long run it saves you money because you know what works and what doesn't work under certain conditions."

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.

"There's no question wolves and bears can take significant numbers of moose or caribou, I don't think that's the argument," said retired UAF wildlife management professor Frederick Dean, who also signed the letter. "The argument is if we're going to do it and try to manage predation it ought to be done in a way so that we learn something."

The main goal of the predator programs, which is to boost moose and caribou populations to maximum levels for hunters, is also questionable, he said.

"There's been very strong political pressure for maximizing the huntable moose and caribou populations," Dean said. "I don't think you can keep the population of ungulates to the point where you can expect maximum harvest forever."

UAF zoology professor Ed Murphy also signed the letter, as did Abel Bult-Ito, an associate professor of biology.

"I think wolves are an important part of the ecosystem; exterminating them from the air is just inhumane to me," Bult-Ito said. "Just the idea that you can pick up a helicopter and go after them and shoot them from the air is just disgusting to me."

The report also stated that predator control won't create more moose or caribou if the prey species don't have enough food, if severe winters curb their natural reproduction or if human hunters are allowed to overharvest.

On several counts, the council found that state biologists didn't have enough information about habitat to judge whether predator control would work. Biologists also lacked enough information about bears to know why a given moose or caribou population was failing.

The council recommended the state consider every predator control plan an experiment and check regularly to see if its efforts were getting results.

After report came out, the state revised a proposed program to kill wolves around McGrath. Based on additional research over several years, the 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 letter urges the state to take that same approach for every predator control plan.

Since the McGrath program was adopted, the Game Board has targeted hundreds of wolves and dozens of grizzly bears in six additional areas.

The letter calls the expansion "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 overhunting are responsible for limiting the moose population, predator control won't work, 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."

Staff writer Tim Mowry contributed to this Associated Press report

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