Predator Debate Leads Off Public Testimony

Tim Mowry / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / February 28, 2004

The plot thickened at the Alaska Board of Game meeting in Fairbanks on Friday when a trapper from Healy showed up and told the board he had trapped and killed the leader of one of two wolf packs regularly seen by tourists in Denali National Park and Preserve.

The wolf had strayed outside a highly publicized and controversial no-trapping, no-hunting "buffer zone" established by a previous game board four years ago to protect a pair of wolf packs that roam in and out of the eastern corner of Alaska's most famous park.

Sitting before the seven-member board wearing a camouflage ball cap, Brent Keith said he trapped the alpha male in the Mount Margaret pack on Wednesday after watching the pack of 12 wolves consume a cow moose they had killed less than a half mile from his house.
"I watched them for five days," Keith said. "They were four-tenths of a mile from my house. I listened to them (howling) every night and finally I went out and put some snares out there. "I figured I'd tell you about it before you read it in the paper," he said.

Friday marked the first of at least two days of public testimony at the meeting and Keith's testimony caused a stir in the crowd of about 100 people in a conference room at the Wedgewood Resort, where the state game board is meeting for two weeks to review and revise hunting and trapping regulations throughout the Interior, including the possible elimination of the Denali Buffer Zone.

While many of the 272 proposals submitted to the board relate to predator control for wolves and bears in order to boost moose and caribou populations, much of Friday's public testimony centered around the politically-polarized buffer zone.

The 55-square mile buffer zone has been a hot-button issue since it was created four years ago by a game board appointed by then-Gov. Tony Knowles and is now in danger of being dissolved by a more hunter and trapper friendly board put in place by current Gov. Frank Murkowski a year ago. The board is considering several proposals to get rid of the buffer zone.

Trappers and hunters like Keith argue that there is no biological justification for the buffer zone and that it is an unnecessary restriction to placate animal-rights activists.

"I don't see any need for a buffer zone; there are plenty of wolves running around in that area," said Keith, noting there are at least five packs that roam the area he traps. "These wolves will replace themselves.

"I think people should be concerned about the caribou herd in that area," he said, referring to the struggling Denali Caribou Herd. "Nothing is going to replace that caribou herd when it's gone."

Wildlife viewers and animal-rights groups, meanwhile, contend that the buffer zone helps protect a valuable aspect of Alaska's tourism industry.

Former game board member Vic Van Ballenberghe of Anchorage, a wildlife biologist who was on the board when the buffer zone was created, urged the board to keep it in place, even if it is too small to fully protect the wolves.

"It's the one spot in the state where you stand a decent chance of seeing wolves or hearing them howl," he said. "It represents a high value of viewing that needs to be preserved. If you rank the animals we have in Alaska and the demand to see those animals, wolves rank near the top of the list."

Board member Pete Buist pointed out that each time a wolf pack gets displaced by hunting, trapping or natural mortality, another pack moves in. Five wolf packs have lived in the area in the last 20 years, he said.

"Do you think tourists can tell the difference between those packs?" Buist asked Van Ballenberghe. "Do we need the very same wolves to look at?"

But Van Ballenberghe said it takes a pack of wolves time to become tolerant of humans so they can be viewed on a reliable basis and constant turnover of packs hinders viewing opportunities."So what you're saying is the buffer zone will allow tourists a better chance of seeing a habituated wolf?" Buist asked. "Is that what you mean by tolerant?"

Defenders of Wildlife representative Karen Deatherage followed Van Ballenberghe to the microphone and addressed Buist's question by saying that her group is working with the National Park Service to educate park visitors about viewing wolves to decrease habituation issues.

Deatherage also spoke out against two aerial wolf control programs recently initiated by the game board near McGrath and in the Nelchina Basin that have resulted in private pilots and hunters killing more than 80 wolves, all in the Nelchina Basin.

Not only have Alaskans voted down aerial wolf hunting twice in statewide elections, the hunts violate the Airborne Hunting Act, a case Defenders has taken to the Department of the Interior. On top of that, the state's predator control plans are not biologically justified, she said.

"The data is simply not there," Deatherage said.

To which board member Ron Somerville replied, "I think Defenders is a little more conservative than we are when it comes to scientific proof."

When Buist asked Deatherage what conditions Defenders of Wildlife would endorse predator control in Alaska, she said that would only happen if it involved an endangered species and all other alternatives had been exhausted. The idea of making a predator control plan for bears, a proposal the board is considering, was especially frightening, she said.

"The fact that bears, especially brown bears, reproduce slowly demands bears be managed conservatively," she said.

As of 5 p.m., more than 50 people had signed up to testify before the board, which should occupy all of today and part of Sunday before the board begins deliberating and making decisions on proposals ranging from falconry to predator control.

Tom Swan of Two Rivers encouraged the board to institute more muzzleloading hunts around the state, including one proposed for the Fairbanks Management Area.

"Currently, there is only one muzzleloader hunt for moose in the state," said Swan, speaking on behalf of the Alaska State Muzzleloading Association and the Alaska Chapter of the Coalition of Historical Trekkers.

Wearing a pair of suspenders over a wool shirt, Dave Miller of Fairbanks asked the board to adopt restrictions on out-of-state hunters on the Salcha River. He said he supports a proposal that would require non-residents to shoot moose that have antlers measuring 50 inches or bigger and prohibit them from hunting caribou.

Hunting pressure on the Salcha River has increased greatly since the antler restrictions were instituted on the Tanana Flats two years ago and the Take A Child Hunting season began in Game Management Unit 20B two years ago, making it harder for local hunters to find moose.

"Our biggest problem is coming from non-resident hunters," Miller told the board. "In some cases they've been very arrogant and exercised unethical hunting practices."

In one of the more lighthearted moments at Friday's meeting, a young moose walked up to the glass doors behind where the game board was sitting as Dr. Jim Simon of the state subsistence division was giving a report to the board. The moose caught the attention of game board chairman Mike Fleagle.

"There's subsistence right there," Fleagle said with a chuckle.

News-Miner outdoors editor Tim Mowry can be reached via e-mail at or at 459-7587.

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