30 years ago, early in my career as an Alaska state wildlife biologist,
the Associated Press distributed a picture of me nationwide. I was standing
in front of wolf pelts ADF&G was auctioning in Fairbanks. A Lower 48 reader
clipped the photo and inscribed it: "This is so you can show your children what
wolves looked like when they become extinct."
That they are not extinct, or even remotely in danger of becoming so in Alaska,
now more than a quarter century after that photo is obvious. Why else would we
still be having rancorous discussions about managing wolves?
Standing above the rancor is the simple reality that properly applied wolf control
works. An example from the wolf control program that resulted in the wolf hides
I had my picture taken with illustrates.
When we started the Tanana Flats wolf control program in the mid-1970s moose
and caribou numbers were low and falling. Wolf numbers were high. Ten years later,
and some years after the program ended, there were more of each: more moose,
more caribou, and -- here's the punch line -- the wolf population had bounced
back to a larger size than when we started.
In the early 1980s, as an area biologist in Delta Junction, I watched as wolf
control had a similar impact on moose numbers. Today moose and wolves are again
abundant around Delta.
Wolf control doesn't always work. For example, when bear predation of young ungulates
is the primary mortality factor, wolf control has a much smaller impact. Intelligent
application is the key.
Wolf control programs also may not work if they are operationally hobbled. If
insufficient numbers of wolves are removed from a population, the advantage for
the ungulate populations will not be achieved. Depending on the circumstances,
game managers with substantial knowledge of pack distribution and movements may
have to use helicopters to control wolf numbers. The efforts of trappers and
hunters alone are usually insufficient to achieve real control.
Romantic notions of the "balance of nature" lead easily to the false conclusion
that if we simply "let nature take its course," abundance will naturally result.
The historical reality is that much of Alaska was hungry country when U.S. Army
explorers began to penetrate the Interior in the late 19th century. Some of these
parties nearly starved for lack of game. The Athabascan inhabitants of the Interior
often struggled with starvation. The "balance of nature" there seems to have
been weighted more toward scarcity than abundance.
I believe our choice today is either wildlife abundance, maintained by intelligent
management of ungulates, their habitats and their predators, or what will likely
be long periods of limited numbers of prey species like moose and caribou, as
the 19th century explorers found.
As a younger man I scorned what I considered to be emotionally motivated arguments
against good wolf management. I could then and still plainly see the potential
for wildlife abundance in Alaska -- an abundance that includes both predators
Today, I have more sympathy. I have come to understand that some of the best
things in life cannot be decided or even understood on the basis of logic. I
have come to sincerely respect the perspectives of those who are hurt by even
the thought of wolves being killed. In the calculations we as a society make
about this issue, we fail to acknowledge as honest and important these sentiments
only at peril to our humanity. National parks and special state areas should
be an important contribution to meeting this valid emotional perspective.
But I also have observed with my own eyes that intelligently applied wolf control
works. It can provide a balanced abundance of prey and predators for subsistence,
recreational and aesthetic uses. Alaska is poorer today for having failed to
appropriately manage wolves in many yesterdays now gone by.
The main question, in my mind, is whether we want an Alaska with abundant wildlife
or an Alaska where wolf populations are not actively managed with occasional
lethal control. The evidence suggests to me that we cannot have both.
David Johnson is a 31-year Alaskan and retired state wildlife biologist
and supervisor who worked in Fairbanks, Delta Junction, Juneau and Anchorage
during his Department of Fish and Game career.