Wolf Kill is Based on Hobby Science

COMPASS: Points of view from the community

Gordon Haber / Opinion / Anchorage Daily News / December 19, 2003

The Alaska Board of Game and Department of Fish and Game think predator control is needed in the McGrath and Game Management Unit 13 areas to boost allegedly low and/or decreasing moose populations and harvests. There are major scientific, ethical and other shortcomings with these objectives and associated "remedies," at several levels. However, the allegations themselves don't hold up.

At McGrath, the state's moose-census ("count") area almost certainly includes only small portions of the annual ranges of the relevant populations. This means that the year-to-year estimates of moose numbers and trends are at least as likely to reflect temporary changes in distribution as anything about actual population changes. There is heavy reliance on calf to cow ratios even though without good census information these ratios can falsely indicate that high, increasing populations are low and decreasing, and vice-versa.

The doubling of the state's moose estimates for McGrath from 2000 to 2001 (and even a tripling in the core "EMMA" management area) is enough to demonstrate that they are unreliable, because no realistic combination of birth and death variables could produce such steep increases in only 12 months. Even if these estimates were reliable, they would indicate that the McGrath moose numbers are already at or above the objective the board has set for this control program.

Much the same is true for annual harvests. Biologists and hunters understand that the reported McGrath moose harvests are only an unknown portion of the total annual harvests. When the reported harvests are corrected with reasonable guesses as to the unreported legal and illegal takes, the totals at least closely approach the board's published harvest objective. Moreover, for most of the last 10 years the percentage of successful hunters of the total who reported success or failure has remained relatively stable at 30 percent to 40 percent, which is about the same as in GMU 20A, south of Fairbanks, the state's best moose hunting area.

There is census information for only a 1,500-square-mile portion of 23,000-square-mile GMU 13. While this shows a 1994 to 2001 moose decline, it still leaves a relatively high level of abundance -- probably too high for the state's own moose-harvest objectives (moose populations typically generate their highest sustainable yields 30 percent to 40 percent below their largest sustainable sizes).

Nor do these census results say anything scientific about what moose populations elsewhere in GMU 13 may or may not be doing, especially given the likelihood that there are many, independently changing populations and subpopulations across this large, biologically diverse area. If they did, they would argue against predator control, because the latest estimate -- one moose per square mile -- extrapolated to the full 23,000 square miles would indicate a total well above the board's unit-wide objective of 17,600 to 21,900 moose.

For the remaining 94 percent of GMU 13, the state is relying on "trend counts" as well as calf ratios, a combination that state and other biologists debunked decades ago as an especially error-prone way to evaluate moose numbers and trends. Indeed, it was this very approach in 1979 that misled the state into recommending another aerial wolf control program near McGrath, in the Nowitna area, because -- the state and McGrath residents insisted -- moose numbers had declined from 2,000 to 1,000. But when state biologists finally undertook a bona fide census, they found there were actually 3,500 to 5,000 moose in the Nowitna!

The reported annual GMU 13 moose harvests have declined steeply since the mid-1990s. But so too have the numbers of hunters going afield each year, such that hunter success rates have remained about the same. By now these rates almost certainly would be declining sharply if the alleged unit-wide moose decline was real.

The current predator control programs would never survive quality scientific review. They are based on little more than hobby "science," beginning with the claims that there is even a problem.

Gordon Haber, Ph.D., is an independent, career wildlife scientist who has studied wolves and prey in Alaska since 1966. His research is supported by Friends of Animals.

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