My turn: Wolf-control programs carried out under the guise of 'science'

State biologists use inaccurate findings to avoid public process

Posted: Sunday, February 18, 2007

Alaska's aerial wolf-killing program now covers five areas equal to about two-thirds the size of Wyoming, and wolf control using snowmachines and other non-aerial methods is effectively underway over additional areas as well. Altogether, at least 1,500 wolves are killed annually in Alaska.

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For most of this killing, state biologists and the Board of Game avoid the public process and written findings required for control programs by claiming they are merely providing wolf "harvesting" opportunities. Nevertheless, they are unable to avoid these requirements for the five areas where airplanes are used. The details are revealing.

Foremost, the available information does not support the underlying claims about moose, caribou and related hunting problems.

For example, state biologists continue to mislead Alaskans about the need for predator control near McGrath, where hunters have enjoyed one of the highest moose-hunting success rates in the state for at least 14 years. Last May, state biologists convinced the board it was necessary to triple the size of the Fortymile wolf control area to boost caribou numbers, where caribou numbers have already doubled since 1997.

The only condition that might necessitate killing wolves to provide a sustainable ungulate harvest is the so-called predator pit, a low stable state that can occur at varying densities both naturally and via human causes. Because ungulate recruitment increases and decreases counter-intuitively across wide ranges of population densities, merely showing that there is low calf survival or that survival increases following a predator reduction does not suffice to identify a predator pit. Low calf survival and similar responses to predator reductions can also occur at high populations.

Recruitment information must be interpreted with good population estimates, and vice versa, to confirm a predator pit. But there are few if any reliable estimates of populations and their trends for the control areas. The available information provides more reasons to question than accept the claims about current predator pits.

Game Management Unit 20A, south of Fairbanks, illustrates the importance of identifying this condition accurately and not otherwise jumping to conclusions about negative effects on moose and moose hunting even when wolves are at natural levels. 20A moose were overhunted into a likely predator pit in the early to mid-1970s, then rebounded during wolf control from 1976 to 1982. 20A wolves recovered to natural or near-natural levels by mid-1983 and for the most part have remained there since. Yet during this period of relative wolf abundance - 1983 to 2006 - moose numbers increased another two- to three-fold and 20A has become the best moose-hunting area in Alaska.

In contrast to 20A wolves, 20A bears have remained at low levels, due to past heavy hunting and for other reasons. Thus the 1983 to 2006 observations also debunk the notion (for example, at McGrath) that unchecked wolf predation during the winter will undo early calf-survival gains from reductions in bear predation.

Data from neighboring Denali National Park (in my doctoral dissertation), based on all the ungulates that two groups of wolves ate during 2,666 miles of their travels over a series of mild, severe and average winters, help to explain why. The wolves scavenged rather than killed 60 percent to 77 percent of the moose they ate (47 percent to 48 percent of the moose, sheep and caribou they ate combined) and killed only 2.0 percent to 8.9 percent of the moose they encountered. The state's findings for the control areas are full of speculation about predation effects but mention nothing about this Denali research.

I invite readers to consider the details of these and related arguments. They appear in a 67-page scientific review - with citations to 81 other reports - that I submitted to the Board of Game at the March-May 2006 meetings. The Board neither considered nor even mentioned this and other scientific opposition during its subsequent deliberations.

Once again, agency biologists and the board have been able to avoid meaningful review and sell their gratuitous control programs to Alaskans under the guise of "science."

• Gordon Haber, Ph.D., an independent wildlife scientist, has studied wolves and wolf-ungulate systems in Alaska since 1966.



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