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