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