The state Board of Game decided Tuesday to put lethal wolf control on the forefront of its agenda next month, a move that could turn around eight years of protections for the predators.
Board members will take up the issue during a special meeting March 6 in Anchorage where they will consider ways to help moose populations rebound near McGrath, a 400-population Kuskokwin River town 220 miles northwest of Anchorage.
Lethal wolf control has been a hot-button issue pitting environmentalists against hunters and those who depend on game for subsistence. McGrath has been at the center of the state's wolf control debate as residents have asked since the early 1990s for state assistance in culling wolf populations that prey on the moose they depend on for food.
The March meeting will be the first for six of the seven game board members appointed by Gov. Frank Murkowski, who has supported resuming lethal predator management in the state.
Ron Somerville, a board member from Juneau, said he didn't want to speculate on what action the board might take.
"Like all the new board members I haven't seen the details of the plan. We're requesting a biological update from the department," he said today. "There's already a plan in place they could implement."
Joel Bennett, a former Game Board member from Juneau and a representative of Defenders of Wildlife, a critic of such predator control measures, said he expects to board to support wolf control.
"It looks like a pretty sure thing. (But) I think sometimes the devil is in the details in terms of how the public will react," he said.
Former Gov. Tony Knowles called a halt to the state's wolf-control program shortly after taking office in 1994. He refused to authorize killing any wolves during his eight years in office but did approve more expensive relocation and sterilization programs.
Previous game boards have approved two predator control programs in the state including one in McGrath. Neither were carried out.
The game board met by teleconference Tuesday to schedule the special meeting to consider a wolf control experiment in a 560-square-mile area near McGrath. Department of Fish and Game staff outlined a plan to eliminate 35 wolves and relocate bears from the area beginning March 15. If approved, the plan would run through June.
Board members will consider several methods of wolf control including the more controversial land and shoot and helicopter hunting methods.
Department staff would use data on moose calves to determine if the plan works. If a predator control plan is successful moose numbers should begin rising by 2004, said David James of the Division of Wildlife Conservation.
People in McGrath and nearby Nikolai, Telida and Takotna depend on moose for food. Moose harvests in Nikolai and Telida declined by 60 percent between 1984 and 1995 and recent poor salmon runs have added to the food problems.
Research by Fish and Game showed predation by wolves and bears feeding on moose calves was a key problem.
About 80 to 90 moose are taken in the area each year. An intensive management plan would increase the harvest to 130 to 150 per year, James said.
Board member Mike Fleagle said if the program is successful, it could be expanded to other areas of the state.