McGrath Wolf Kills Fall Short
EXPERIMENT: Murkowski left control up to trappers; state will still relocate bears
Trappers killed 15 wolves around McGrath this winter, slightly more than average but too few to accomplish the goal of an experimental predator control plan.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game had proposed to eliminate all predators from a 520-square-mile experimental micromanagement area for three years. The plan called for killing 45 to 48 wolves and temporarily relocating brown and black bears during the spring calving season. Biologists say such efforts should let the moose population rebound and provide a higher harvest for local hunters.
But the experiment appears to have been undercut by Gov. Frank Murkowski's decision last month to leave the wolf control in the hands of McGrath trappers. The department and the Board of Game had hoped to use state employees and helicopters to ensure all the wolves were killed. Trappers took about a third of them.
"Taking 30 percent (of the wolves) won't do anything" to reduce wolf predation this winter, said Toby Boudreau, Fish and Game's McGrath-area game manager. "They'll replace that many pups this spring."
The predator-removal experiment isn't a total loss, Boudreau said. Fish and Game still plans to relocate bears from the area this spring, which should reduce the calf mortality significantly.
"But the idea behind the experiment was to get the maximum boost in calf survival that we could. To do that, we have to remove the sources of mortality," he said.
"I don't doubt there will be an increase in calf survival to fall. However, I would estimate that wolves would still be able to take quite a few of those calves that were maybe saved during the summer from bears."
Wolf control is arguably the most sensitive game management issue in Alaska. Once thought to be the prime source of moose and caribou mortality, wolves were killed with abandon by federal agents and bounty hunters during territorial days.
Over time, however, changing public sentiment caused managers to pare back wolf hunting and trapping. The last lethal wolf control in Alaska occurred more than a decade ago.
But predator control programs still remain on the books in three areas of the state, and when Murkowski was elected, the McGrath plan looked prime for action.
It is based on a Fish and Game finding that the five villages in the upper Kuskokwim River drainage need 130 to 150 moose a year for subsistence purposes. The current harvest is 80-90. State biologists believe they can raise the moose harvest if predation could be limited for a few years.
The Game Board approved the plan in 1995, though it was never implemented because of a moratorium on lethal wolf control by then Gov.Tony Knowles.
In the meantime, research showed that wolves are responsible for only part of the moose losses in the McGrath area.
Black and brown bears kill about 40 percent of newborn calves every spring, while wolves take 25 percent. Fewer than one-third of the calves born in May live a full year.
Once they become adults, moose face different dangers. Of the 98 McGrath-area moose that died in the study years, hunters shot 47 (including 12 taken illegally), wolves killed 38 and brown bears took 10 more.
The predator control experiment was approved by a task force that included biologists, hunters and wolf-protection advocates.
Bear removal begins next month, and many people believed the wolves would be killed once Murkowski was elected governor. But he balked at having state employees shoot wolves from helicopters and left the task instead to McGrath hunters and trappers.
"We've maintained predator control in other areas of Alaska without gunning 'em down by helicopter," Murkowski said earlier this month. "I'm not convinced it can't be done with the involvement of local people."
But trappers, who take about a dozen wolves in a typical season, caught only 15 of the 45 in the experimental area around McGrath, Boudreau said. Wolves reproduce so fast that the animals killed this year could be replaced over the winter, he added.
An attempt by the Murkowski administration to extend the hunting and trapping season around McGrath an additional month, to May 31, failed Thursday. The Board of Game turned it down on the grounds that it wasn't a biological emergency.
Several board members sounded irate at having the issue brought before them. "Who brought this to us, and why aren't they here to support it," asked Cliff Judkins of Wasilla.
Matt Robus, acting director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation, said he had been asked by his boss, Fish and Game Commissioner Kevin Duffy, to present the idea to the board.
"I believe it came from the governor's office," he said.
Biologists told the board the additional month of trapping would yield only one to three wolves because travel is getting nearly impossible on melting snow and ice. In addition, they warned that the incidental catch of other species could provoke a public outcry.
Board chairman Mike Fleagle, a McGrath hunter and trapper who has long hoped to see the McGrath wolf control plan begin, said he understands the administration's interest in giving trappers additional time to catch wolves in the experiment area, but he added: "There's no way I'd try to catch a wolf in May. It would be foolish."
After voting down the season extension, however, the board agreed tell the Murkowski administration that "we certainly don't intend this to be a grumble and grudge match between the board and the administration."
Daily News reporter Joel Gay can be reached at email@example.com or at 257-4310.
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