ANCHORAGE — A large decline in wolves inside one of Alaska’s national preserves is coinciding with a state-sanctioned program to kill the animals near the boundaries of Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, a National Park Service official said Friday.
Federal biologists discovered a more than 50 percent decline, the highest on record, by comparing the number of wolves spotted in aerial surveys done last fall and this spring in a 2.5 million-acre conservation area in the preserve along the Canadian border.
“The drop is substantially more than normal and coincides with predator control efforts by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game conducted near the preserve,” the Park Service said in a news release.
Alaska has practiced predator control for a decade in multiple areas in order to reduce predators and increase moose and caribou populations. Techniques vary, but the most common method of reducing wolves is to have them shot from aircraft. The state’s predator control program near Yukon-Charley began in 2009 with the shooting of wolves from helicopters.
The federal agency does not manage wildlife in the same way as the state of Alaska. It does not reduce one species to benefit another that is more favorable for harvesting.
Last November, Park Service biologists counted 80 wolves in nine parks in Yukon-Charley. Going into the spring pupping season, biologists could account for only between 28 and 39 wolves in six packs.
Hunting and trapping typically results in about a half-dozen or fewer wolf kills each fall and winter.
“The majority of wolves that were killed this winter are believed to have been part of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s aerial predator control program outside and adjacent to the preserve,” the release said.
Roy Nowlin, the management coordinator for the state Department of Fish and Game’s Interior and eastern Arctic regions, said 116 total wolves have been killed in the larger control area. Of those, department staff have killed 40 wolves and people who hold permits to shoot wolves from aircraft, have killed 76. The state program has concluded for the season, but the public portion of the program continues until the end of April.
Nowlin said they are monitoring the program closely and will produce a summary at the end of the season.
“We don’t have any concerns about the wolf population persisting there,” Nowlin said. “We have in regulations, a minimum number of wolves that need to remain in there, and we’re confident that minimum number will remain after we’re done with the program.”
He added there’s been “an increase in the caribou population as part of our efforts, largely due to the control efforts.”
Deb Cooper, NPS’ associate regional director in Anchorage, said Friday that the agency is not yet ready to say that the state’s predator control activities outside the preserve’s boundaries are hurting Yukon-Charley’s mission as mandated by Congress to maintain a relatively undisturbed ecosystem in the Charley River Basin.
But, she said, federal biologists are concerned. They believe that one, 24-member wolf pack recently was eliminated and two other packs were reduced to one or two animals, she said.
“When you take out whole packs, the ecosystem functions differently,” Cooper said Friday.
Biologists will keep a close eye on the production of wolf pups this summer, she said.
“The state is conducting predator control on state lands. We understand that. They are exercising their prerogative to meet the legal framework they have before them through the state of Alaska,” Cooper said. “The Park Service is assessing what is going to be necessary to protect all the species of the ecosystem. “