State Doesn't Need Another Wolf War

COMPASS: Points of view from the community

Anchorage Daily News / Victor Van Ballenberghe / November 1, 2003


Last spring the Legislature greased the skids for wolf control across a broad area of Alaska by once again allowing public taking of wolves with airplanes. Now, the Board of Game is poised to approve two or three wolf control programs, including ones in the McGrath area and the Nelchina Basin near Glennallen. Are these programs well grounded in sound science? Are such wolf control programs wise public policy?

In 1974 I began research on moose and wolves in the Nelchina Basin as a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Things then were similar to now; the moose population had declined, wolves and bears were abundant, and hunters wanted more moose and caribou. There were widespread cries for wolf control. Fortunately, the department and the board resisted the pressure and recommended studies to clarify the problem. Several research projects showed that bear predation on calves was the fundamental problem. An experimental wolf reduction did not produce more moose. Removing bears improved calf survival. Over time, moose increased without wolf control to relatively high density before severe winters in the late 1980s caused declines.

Research in recent years near Glennallen has shown that severe winters during the past decade and chronic habitat problems were major factors preventing moose population increases. There have been no large forest fires in this area for decades to improve moose habitat. Despite declines, the moose population has been high enough to heavily browse what food was available. And, over the past 20 years, hunters have greatly improved ATV access to several of the most remote areas. The resulting hunting pressure recently caused the board to further restrict hunting to preserve more bulls. All of this suggests that if severe winters, bear predation, poor habitat and hunting are the major problems, a heavy dose of wolf control is unlikely to produce more moose.

Things at McGrath were similar. Bad winters caused a decline of moose, and there were loud cries for wolf control despite very little biological information. Research showed that bear predation on calves was much more important than wolf predation, that habitat in much of the area was poor and that hunting had reduced bulls to low levels in accessible areas. Recent experimental bear removal resulted in much improved calf survival. A moose census in 2001 revealed about twice the number of moose as previously claimed. Again, wolf control will not help if bad winters, bear predation, poor habitat and hunting are primary problems.

I believe that it is fundamental to base wildlife management on sound science. The risk of failure by doing otherwise is much too high. We have the necessary personnel and scientific methods to do it right. Can we all agree that political considerations are secondary?

If studies demonstrate that it is necessary to reduce wolves, how should we best do it? Those of us around before 1996 recall vividly all the problems that resulted when airplanes were used to take wolves. It was illegal to shoot directly from the air, and to harass and herd wolves to get them where a plane could land. But aerial shooting and harassment were common. Several high-profile court cases detailed how bad things could get. Wolves and wolverines were chased to exhaustion, at times in federal wildlife refuges and national parks. Public outrage led to a 1996 ballot initiative to ban airplane hunting. It passed in nearly every election district in the state.

Now, we are poised to return to the days when hunters in Supercubs brought shame to us all. Let's tell the Game Board we've already spoken loudly at the polls opposing public shooting of wolves using airplanes. Alaska doesn't need another war over wolves that will touch off a firestorm of controversy. We've been down that road before with, predictably bad results.

Victor Van Ballenberghe is a wildlife biologist who has conducted moose and wolf research in Alaska since 1974. He was appointed to the Game Board three times by two different governors.

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