Intellect, Not Savagery, Guides Predator Control

Craig Medred / Outdoors / Anchorage Daily News / March 21. 2004

And now we're bloody savages.

Because the never-ending debate about how many wolves and bears are enough has swung temporarily against those species -- in favor of moose, caribou, Dall sheep and other prey -- the New York Times has this to say about Alaskans:

''... In Alaska the age-old war on wolves has resumed with all its age-old savagery -- the savagery of humans, that is.''

This is just the kind of thing some East Coast newspaper far removed from the realities of life in the wilderness might have written about Alaska Native people 150 years ago.

The National Academy of Sciences reported in "Wolves, Bears, and Their Prey in Alaska'' that "the overriding objective of wildlife management of those people (indigenous Athabascan Indians) was to reduce predator populations to allow for growth or maintenance of strong prey populations. The advice that was transmitted from generation to generation about wolves, bears, eagles and sea otters in the stories of many tribal groups was that 'we always need to keep them down,' and that 'it's important to stay ahead of them.' Bears and eagles were taken at every opportunity; the level of harvest would be described today as 'generous.' ''

The situation didn't improve when white men arrived, either.

Truth is, it got worse. Gold prospectors pretty much laid waste to the Alaska.

"Forests were cut to provide wood ... '' the academy report notes. "The extent of wildfire from accidental causes greatly increased, and fires were deliberately started ... to facilitate prospecting. As a consequence ... populations of moose, caribou, mountain sheep, wolves and bears were reduced to historically low levels.''

Alaska wildlife resources got hit with the double whammy during the Gold Rush. Not only were men destroying habitat, they were killing almost every animal they could find for food to supply transportation and trade centers in Fairbanks, Eagle, Circle, Tanana, McGrath, Galena and elsewhere.

"In winter,'' the academy noted, "many prospectors, miners and others used dog teams to hunt extensively throughout Interior Alaska for moose, caribou and mountain sheep. ... The pressure on large mammals for food for people and their dogs ... and the comparable pressure on wolves, bears and other fur bearers to supply the fur market (was) widespread and intense.''

By the time the Alaska Game Commission was created in 1925 to lead conservation efforts, there weren't many four-legged critters left roaming Alaska. The game commission, a federal entity under the control of bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., changed that.

But the feds, who some now seem to consider the saviors of Alaska wildlife, didn't love predators, either. They sanctioned wolf control in McKinley National Park. They set up the Branch of Predator and Rodent Control under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1948 to do nothing but persecute predators.

The predator branch, the academy noted, had "the primary assignment of killing wolves and coyotes to bring about an increase in moose, caribou, deer and mountain sheep. ... The federal control agency emphasized maximizing the total number of wolves and coyotes killed. Little effort was devoted to focus control in areas of presumed need."

The feds went more than a little crazy at times. At one point, they tried to exterminate North Slope wolves in the misguided belief that they could spark Arctic caribou herds to grow at such rates that the animals would be forced, by their sheer numbers, to move south looking for new range. It didn't work.

But the feds had better luck north of Anchorage in the Nelchina Basin. They boosted the Nelchina caribou herd from 4,000 animals in 1948 to 40,000 seven years later by smashing the wolf population.

In all of Game Management Unit 13 -- an area that covers all of the Talkeetna Mountains, all of the Nelchina Basin, much of the south slope of the Alaska Range and a good chunk of the eastern Chugach Mountains -- there were an estimated 13 wolves in 1953.

This was the kind of wolf management conducted under the watchful eyes of those all-knowing people from the East Coast.

Oh, how the pendulum swings.

Today, despite the fact Unit 13 is one of those places where the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is issuing permits for airplane hunting for wolves as part of what The New York Times calls Alaska's "savagery,'' the management goal is a wolf population of 135 to 165 animals.

I confess to unease with where the state Board of Game appears headed in terms of killing predators to boost prey populations.

More than dead wolves and bears -- all of which have shown the reproductive capacity to bounce back to high numbers when left alone -- I am uncomfortable with the board furthering a widespread public misperception that Alaska can somehow be made a land of plenty with a moose behind every willow and a caribou on every tundra knoll.

As one of those studying ecology in college in the '70s when everyone believed predation was an inherently good thing, I have an ingrained uneasiness about anything that hints at the persecution of wild predators, as our current program does.

But one thing we've learned over the past 35 years is that predators aren't much different from humans living true subsistence lifestyles.

They kill what they need to eat without consideration for conservation because the only other choice is starvation and death. And because they kill this way, they can in some circumstances help cause prey populations to crash and then hold those populations low to the detriment of the entire ecosystem.

For man to think about intervening at that point by killing some predators to take the pressure off their prey would seem more an exercise of intellect than of savagery, but I'm sure from the wilds of Manhattan that's hard to see.

Daily News Outdoor editor Craig Medred can be reached at


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