Wolf Control Proves Unnecessary

Vic Van Ballenberghe /  March 9, 2004

(Originally Published in the Anchorage Daily News / Compass / November 12, 2001)

Critics of proposed wolf control actions at McGrath have long maintained that more information was needed before launching a control program. Despite claims from local residents, the Alaska Outdoor Council and some legislators that there was a crisis where wolves were overrunning the country, eating all the moose and endangering human lives, little was known about the underlying biological problems. Nevertheless, the Board of Game authorized a wolf control program two years ago that would have taken about 80 percent of the wolves by aerial shooting methods, thereby igniting another firestorm of public controversy. To his credit, and despite intense political pressure, Gov. Tony Knowles held firm on his position that control programs must first be based on sound science, and refused to implement the control program.

I have likened wolf control at McGrath to prescribing medical treatments for human patients in the absence of diagnostic tests. Because the cause of the symptoms is unknown, such treatments at best fail to cure the disease. At worst, they are expensive and do more harm than good. No one would risk treatment by a doctor using these methods, yet many at McGrath were willing to conduct wolf control with very little biological information.

Appointment of the governor's McGrath "Adaptive Management" committee to recommend ways to deal with the issues was labeled a stalling tactic by wolf-control proponents. But this committee heard from biologists outside the Department of Fish and Game that bad winters, poor habitat, bear predation, and hunting likely were at least as important as wolves in affecting moose numbers. The committee recognized the need to collect much more information and urged the department to initiate data gathering.

Although this controversy simmered for six years, it was not until March 2001 that studies began. Preliminary results are now in. They indicate that moose are not nearly as scarce as claimed; that the moose population has not declined during the past five years and, in fact, is now likely increasing; that bears are major predators of moose calves; that habitat in much of the area is poor and unlikely to support many more moose even if predators were removed; that adult moose are in relatively poor condition because of limited food supplies; and that hunting has reduced bull moose to low levels in accessible areas where most local residents hunt. A recent moose census revealed an estimated 2,247 moose in the area in contrast to 869 a year ago when census conditions were poor. In the area slated for elimination of wolves, there are now nearly four times the number of moose estimated as recently as one month ago.

These results clearly indicate that wolf control is unnecessary now, and that local moose hunters can continue to hunt. Equally clear is that had the wolf-control proponents prevailed, Alaska would have suffered another public relations black eye with few additional moose produced. Biologically, we would have targeted wolves, the wrong factor, while the true causes of low moose numbers would have continued to depress numbers. Worse yet, biologists would have been unable to explain the results of wolf control, or learn anything meaningful to apply to other areas with similar problems.

While die-hard wolf-control proponents will continue to argue that wolves really were the problem, and the local bounty resulted in more dead wolves and more moose, the fact is that the bounty did not increase the wolf take significantly. Even if it did, the bounty was paid only one year, far too short a time to result in increased moose numbers.

The McGrath example is not unique. There are several other Interior areas with similar claims of too many wolves and too few moose. I hope the decision makers and politicians will learn well the primary lesson from McGrath -- that without adequate diagnostic tests, the cause of the symptoms cannot be determined, and treatment for the patient cannot be prescribed.

Victor Van Ballenberghe is a wildlife biologist who has done research on moose and wolves in Alaska since 1974.

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