Wolf Control on Fast Track

Tim Mowry , Staff Writer / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / February 12, 2003


The Alaska Department of Fish and Game will begin killing wolves and moving bears from moose-deprived areas around McGrath as early as March 15, according to a plan state wildlife biologists pitched to the Board of Game during a teleconference on Tuesday.

The plan will be released for public review and comment this week and the game board will decide whether to approve the plan for a small area in Unit 19D East during a special meeting in Anchorage on March 6, the eve of the game board's 10-day meeting to deal with Southcentral regulation changes.

Lethal wolf control in Alaska has been a hot-button issue, pitting environmentalists against sport and subsistence hunters for decades.

Under the new direction of Gov. Frank Murkowski, it appears the state is poised to begin its first lethal predator control program in almost a decade. Former governor Tony Knowles stopped the state's wolf control program shortly after taking office in 1994 and refused to approve the killing of any wolves during his eight years in office, though he did support the sterilization and relocation of wolves as part of a plan to help the Fortymile Caribou Herd recover.

Previous game boards have approved two predator control programs in the state--one in McGrath and one in Unit 13 in the Nelchina Basin--but Knowles refused to implement either.

Before and after being elected in November, Murkowski said repeatedly that he will manage Alaska's wildlife resources for abundance and that predator control would play a major role in boosting game populations for hunters.

To prove his point, Murkowski last month appointed six new members to the seven-person game board and all six are predator-control advocates, including former state game director Ron Somerville, who requested Tuesday's teleconference to educate new board members on the status of the state's wolf control plans.

Wildlife biologists are proposing to remove all the wolves from a 520-square mile area around McGrath and neighboring villages to increase the number of moose available for local hunters, who say there are not enough moose to support their subsistence needs.

That would translate to killing or moving about 30 wolves, biologists said. Moving the wolves would be less controversial than shooting them, but it would be more expensive and more difficult, said research biologist Pat Valkenburg. In addition, wolves that are moved could return.

"The most efficient way to do it would be shooting them with a helicopter," Valkenburg told game board members. "The other option would be translocating them, which is more expensive, more difficult and, in my view, less humane than shooting them."

The state also wants to move all the bears out of the area during moose calving season from mid-May and early June to boost the survival of moose calves, the majority of which are killed by wolves and bears in the first six weeks after birth, according to recent studies by biologists. Black and grizzly bears actually kill more moose calves than wolves, Valkenburg said. It's the first time the state has proposed moving bears that are not problem or food-conditioned bears.

"We just want them to be gone for six weeks or two months, until moose calves can run fast enough to get away," Valkenburg said.

McGrath has been at the center of the state's wolf control debate and residents have been asking the state to cull wolves that prey on the moose they depend on for food. The situation has been compounded by poor salmon returns in recent years.

The state is hoping to boost the local moose harvest by about 50 moose a year from the current 80 to 90 moose that subsistence hunters kill to 130 to 150 a year.

"If wolves and bears are successfully removed, an expanded moose harvest could begin in the fall of 2004," Valkenburg said.

The four-month program would cost the state between $100,000 and $160,000, James told board members.

State wildlife officials want to give the public time to review and comment on the plan before implementing it, James said.

"We're a public agency and we have an obligation to have the public know what we're doing," said James. "From past experience we've learned that the more we appear to be doing things behind the scenes the more likely we are to incur greater opposition."

The plan will be available on the Internet and at local Fish and Game offices in the next few days, he said.

Game board member Mike Fleagle, who served for six years on the game board under Knowles and was one of the six new members recently appointed by Murkowski, said the quicker the state begins predator control the better.

Fleagle, who lives in McGrath, noted that a predator control program for McGrath was approved in 1995 and the state has yet to remove a single wolf, even though biologists and Game Board members have acknowledged some kind of control program is needed to boost moose populations.

The current plan has been watered down several times to make it more palatable to the public, he said.

"A certain segment of the public won't agree with any kind of predator control plan, regardless," Fleagle argued. "The biology still supports the original program.

"I'm impatient with stall tactics and arguments. We've got to break the ice somewhere."

Staff writer Tim Mowry can be reached at tmowry@newsminer.com or 459-7587.

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