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.