Wolves on Douglas

Empire Editorial / Juneau Empire / March 14, 2004

The seven wolves that roamed Douglas Island more than two years ago may be gone, but the impressions they made are still with us. And some of those impressions are misleading.

Those seven wolves were unusual in two ways. They hung about on the beach where they were highly visible, so a number of people had the chance to see wolves in the wild. And a single trapper managed to kill them all, almost overnight. There were two adults and five pups.

Trapping an entire pack, or at least what seemed to be a family group, fueled public outrage that led to restrictions in November 2002 on hunting and trapping wolves on Douglas. Now some say those restrictions are too stringent. The Juneau Douglas Fish and Game Advisory Committee has organized a panel to figure out if the restrictions should be changed.

But as they do so, people need to separate the reality from the fiction that often surrounds wolves. Too often, opinions about wolves are based on misconceptions, rather than fact.

Misconceptions are held by those on both sides of the issue: those who want wolves to thrive in Juneau's backyard, and deer hunters who worry wolves will diminish the capital city's most accessible hunting grounds.

Some deer hunters are overly fearful about wolves' effect on Douglas deer. While rumors of wolves on Douglas exist, there's no real proof they are there. And while the deer harvest has dropped in the last couple of years, there's no indication it's because of wolves. Other factors are likely contributing to that decline, including milder weather that may have kept deer at higher, less accessible elevations during the hunting season.

But it's understandable that deer hunters don't want to see the wolf harvest restrictions continue indefinitely. Current restrictions ban hunting and trapping wolves on Douglas until state biologists estimate the island has at least seven wolves, and even then, no more than 30 percent of the wolves could be killed. Also, hunting and trapping will reopen if hunters' take of deer over two years falls more than 35 percent from the average of the previous 10 years.

There are two problems with drawing the line at seven wolves.

It's incredibly hard to figure out how many wolves are on the island, according to state biologists. Some Juneau residents have the misimpression that it's easy to count wolves because the former group was so visible. But state biologist Neil Barten said those wolves' behavior was not typical and is unlikely to happen again. Wolves are usually extremely skittish and, in the dense cover of Douglas, very hard to track down.

Also, Southeast biologists manage a huge range of wildlife, from moose to mountain goats from Cape Fanshaw to Yakutat. State scientists have limited time, money and staff to pinpoint the number of wolves on Douglas.

Here's the other problem with drawing the line at seven: One wolf eats about 26 deer a year. If a pack of seven wolves were established on Douglas Island, that would mean 182 deer killed by wolves per year. Human hunters take 200 to 300 deer each year, and it's likely a pack of seven wolves is going to affect the deer population to some degree.

A balance is possible. Some who want to protect wolves are afraid that if the restrictions are loosened, wolves will be wiped out on Douglas again. But people should keep in mind that snaring a whole pack of wolves at once was a highly unusual event. In the previous 50 years, there is no record of any wolves being captured on Douglas Island at all, according to state biologists.

The group reviewing these limits should consider several options. These include lowering the base line number of wolves before hunting and trapping are allowed, and considering a very limited set of hunting or trapping permits for Douglas. Current restrictions are impractical and revising them can create a better balance between the concerns of deer hunters and those who want to see wolves in the city's backyard. --

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