McGrath Predators in State's Sights
Moose: Board of Game plan would remove wolves, bears to help hunters.
State sharpshooters could be shooting wolves from helicopters as early as next month if the Alaska Board of Game implements a long-idled predator control plan near McGrath, state biologists said Tuesday.
The Alaska Department of Fish & Game says the experimental program would attempt to remove every predator from a 520 square-mile area, with wolves being either shot or tranquilized and relocated, and black and brown bears being tranquilized.
The idea is to put more moose in hunters' sights, state biologists told the board at a teleconference Tuesday.
The plan also could put Alaska back in the sights of animal-rights protesters, who successfully pressured former Gov. Wally Hickel into canceling wolf-control programs in the early 1990s with a tourism boycott and protests throughout the United States.
Gov. Tony Knowles shelved all lethal predator controls during his eight years in office.
Even if the board implements the plan, Gov. Frank Murkowski will want to review it, said his spokesman, John Manly.
"He wants the board to take a look at the proposal, discuss it and see if that's the best way to go about it," Manly said.
But Mike Fleagle, a McGrath resident and newly appointed game board member, sounded confident Tuesday that the board and administration are ready to resume wolf control.
"We've got to break the ice sometime," he told fellow board members. "We've got to get going. I'm really impatient with these stall tactics."
The plan outlined Tuesday stems from one created in 1995 after residents of the upper Kuskokwim River drainage watched moose stocks crash, Fleagle said. It was never implemented. Knowles canceled all lethal wolf-control programs pending review by a national scientific board.
In the meantime, state biologists continued studying the moose population and found that black bears kill more moose calves than wolves. Studies also showed the moose population was not as low as previously thought. The stock remains low but stable, according to Fish & Game.
Armed with new information, biologists presented a revised McGrath plan to the board Tuesday, saying the predator-control program could begin this spring if the board moves quickly.
The board is scheduled to meet March 6 to 17 in Anchorage. Tuesday's meeting was called, in part, to put the McGrath proposal on the agenda and provide the necessary public notice for the March meeting.
Fish & Game research coordinator Pat Valkenburg said the plan calls for removing the estimated 30 to 35 wolves from the EMMA, or experimental micro-management area, that surrounds McGrath. Relocating them would work, he said, but would cost more and would probably be less humane than shooting the animals from helicopters, he said.
Black and brown bears would be relocated at least 100 miles away.
The other major predator, human beings, also would be eliminated from the zone during this fall's hunt but allowed in 2004, Valkenburg said.
Biologists would continue to radio-collar moose calves this spring to check survival rates. Without wolves and bears around, more should survive to become adults. With fewer wolves and no human hunters, the population should rise, he said.
The program would cost an estimated $100,000 to $160,000. The goal is to raise the number of adult moose by some 50 to 75.
"Pretty expensive moose," quipped board member Julie Maier.
Fleagle responded by saying that the state would gain substantially more than that if the experiment works.
"The cost is small compared to the benefit of this program when the state expands it elsewhere," he said.
While Fleagle was ready to implement the program immediately, new board member Ron Somerville of Juneau called for restraint. He urged the board to put out the plan for public comment and wait until the board's planned spring meeting in Anchorage to act.
"It should be done in full public view," he said.
The plan and several options will be made public before the March meeting but are not yet available.
Wolf-protection activist Paul Joslin of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance said he fears the decision to implement the plan is a foregone conclusion.
"Where's the public process?" he asked.
Joslin noted that even Fish & Game's studies show the moose population around McGrath is no worse than it was in 1996 and that studies suggest habitat should improve after the Vinasale fire last summer.
"It's rather more complicated" than biologists and board members would like people to believe, he said, "not at all the story of panic there was before."
Reporter Joel Gay can be reached at 907-257-4310 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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