The Alaska Department of Fish and Game will expand its aerial war on wolves in moose-depressed areas this winter.
Not only will hunters in airplanes be zeroing in on wolves in the Nelchina Basin and McGrath, as they did last year, but they will also be targeting wolves west of Cook Inlet near Anchorage and in the central Kuskokwim River region near Aniak.
Aerial control programs in the latter two areas were approved by the Alaska Board of Game in March after residents who live in the areas pleaded with the game board for help dealing with predators.
The state is aiming to kill upwards of 500 wolves this winter in the four regions, all of which are reported to have declining moose populations due to predation by wolves, according to both the state wildlife biologists who manage the areas and hunters who use them.
The state began accepting applications from prospective pilot/gunner teams this week and will continue doing so until Oct. 15, when a list of permit winners in each area will be released.
Last year, the state issued 33 permits for Unit 13 and five for the McGrath area.
Hunters killed a total of 144 wolves last year--127 in the Nelchina Basin and 17 in the McGrath area--the first time since 1994 that state has employed a lethal wolf-control program. Then-Gov. Tony Knowles, who is running for the U.S. Senate, called a halt to the state's predator control program shortly after taking office for the first of two gubernatorial terms. Knowles refused to approve any lethal wolf control programs during his eight-year tenure.
His replacement, Gov. Frank Murkowski, has taken a more aggressive stance against the 8,000 to 11,000 wolves that biologists estimate are in Alaska, of which about 1,500 a year are killed by hunters and trappers. Murkowski overhauled the Alaska Board of Game shortly after his election two years ago and the new board almost immediately approved wolf-control programs for the McGrath area and Nelchina Basin by allowing private pilots to hunt wolves.
"The governor is committed to this course of action," said spokeswoman Becky Hultberg. "He thinks it's in the best interests to the people of area and he thinks the people should have some role in the game management where they live."
Last year's wolf control program produced protests from animal-rights groups in Alaska and the Lower 48. Connecticut-based Friends of Animals organized a nationwide tourism boycott of Alaska while Defenders of Wildlife placed advertisements in newspapers in Alaska and the Lower 48 lambasting Alaska's wolf control efforts.
"I'm not sure what the public reaction will be to this further expansion of (wolf control)," said Kim Titus, deputy commissioner for the state wildlife division.
The threat of tourism boycotts and backlash from animals-rights groups opposed to the killing of wolves in Alaska doesn't concern the governor, said Hultberg.
"He's concerned about what Alaskans think," she said.
The Department of Fish and Game is doing everything it can to comply with governor's campaign against predators, said Titus.
"Certainly the department is interested in not only those areas but in other areas of the state where there are depressed moose populations," he said. "The issue for the department is that as these additional places in the state come up for consideration, we are less able to bring the extensive survey and research data to the table that we have in places like Unit 13 and McGrath, where we have been studying the moose and wolves for 10 and 20 years."
The game board is set to consider another predator control program for the Tok area this fall, Titus noted.
The state is aiming to kill about 150 wolves in both Unit 13 and Unit 19A while the harvest objective in Unit 16B will be around 100 and the goal in McGrath is 40, the same as last year.
Hunters will be allowed to land and shoot or shoot from airplanes in Unit 19D East near McGrath and Unit 19A near Aniak while hunters in Unit 13 in the Nelchina Basin and Unit 16B will be allowed only to land and shoot.
The moose population in Unit 16B, which runs from the southern edge of Denali National Park and Preserve to the northern tip of the Kenai Peninsula, has declined by at least 50 percent in the last decade, said state wildlife biologist Gino Del Frate in Palmer. The area is easily accessible by plane or riverboat from the Kenai Peninsula, Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley,
"There's quite a bit of public concern in seeing something happen over there," said Del Frate.
Based on anecdotal information from pilots and trappers, as well as harvest by trappers and hunters, state biologists believe there are upwards of 200 wolves in Unit 16B, said Del Frate. According to research from other areas in the state, a wolf population can sustain a 35 percent harvest rate and still remain stable, he said.
"We'd probably need at least a 50 percent reduction," he said.
In Unit 19A on the central Kuskokwim River, biologists estimate there are between 180-240 wolves roaming the 10,000-square-mile area. While biologists don't have a good idea what the moose population is in the area, they know the harvest has dropped significantly, said Roy Nowlin, management coordinator for the Division of Wildlife Conservation in Fairbanks.
The first permits will be issued after Oct. 15 and the state is hoping to have hunters in the air by Dec. 1 after biologists complete their fall moose surveys. That's assuming there is adequate snow cover, something that didn't happen last year until late January and early February.
Permits are issued based on a pilot's familiarity and flying time in an area, as well as previous experience hunting wolves. Hunters who received permits last year must apply for a new permit this year.
While it's too early to tell if last year's control programs had an effect on the wolf or moose populations, there are signs that things are beginning to rebound in Unit 13, said biologist Bob Tobey at Fish and Game in Glennallen.
This year's calf crop was "outstanding," he said. The percentage of cows having twins over a large portion of Unit 13 was more than 30 percent, "which is really good," said Tobey.
"We're waiting to see what occurs in the fall moose counts," he said.
The four wolf control programs approved by the game board will run for at least five years.
"The history of these things is that it takes typically five years before you see any kind of result," said Bruce Bartley with the ADF&G in Anchorage. "It doesn't do any good to do it one year and walk away from it. You might as well not have even started it."
News-Miner staff writer Tim Mowry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 459-7587.