Alaska's policies on "control" of wolf and bear populations to boost moose and caribou numbers are extreme and well beyond any ecologically sound science. Some of the measures are brutal and arguably unethical. Some practices are archaic, excessive, and/or designed to favor only a small group of hunters - mostly urban residents and nonresidents. The cost is exorbitant.
A few years ago, the National Research Council conducted a blue-ribbon review of predator control in Alaska. The resulting document set forth scientifically sound standards and guidelines for predator control. However, this document has been ignored and most current predator control practices are not based on the best available science: They commonly lack good census information on either prey (moose, caribou) or predators (wolves, bears) and generally lack good assessments of the capacity of the habitat to support an increased population of moose or caribou. The reported numbers of these species taken by hunters neglects the large number of unreported "takes" and are therefore underestimates of the actual numbers. In other words, the actual "harvest" rates of moose and caribou are better than reported. The ability to enforce even minimal regulations in remote areas is close to nil.
Many predator control measures are cruel. For instance, gassing wolf pups in their dens or hauling them out and shooting them, is brutal. Opening the hunting season in late summer, when pups are still fully dependent on adults, is inhumane. Reducing wolves by 80 percent over wide areas, and even by 100 percent in certain areas, is certainly excessive. Chasing wolves to exhaustion by air or snowmobile and then shooting them, is cruel. Slaughtering nursing female wolves condemns the pups to a slow death by starvation.
We all know subsistence hunting is important in rural Alaska. But much of this extreme predator control is practiced in areas adjacent to urban centers and clearly caters primarily to urban (non-subsistence) shooters. Many predator control policies benefit very few people. For example, removal of the buffer zones around Denali favors a very small number of trappers and no one else. In fact, wolves in Denali are one of the species visitors hope to see and the Denali wolf population has already declined. Additionally, allowing the sale of bear body parts is an advantage of only a few people.
Encouraging private pilots to chase and take wolves from planes, transporting bear hunters in helicopters and allowing same-day shooting of wolves or bears located by airplane, certainly does not fit the definition of fair-chase and ethical hunting. The state defines predator control to exclude fair chase, but this sophistry does not make these practices ethical.
The cost of the official predator control program is extraordinarily high. For example, using figures obtained from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for the 2009 fiscal year, the expenditure was over $3.7 million for intensive predator control. During that fiscal year, a reported 126 wolves were shot under that program (and an uncertain number of bears). That amounts to almost $30,000 per dead wolf (if we perforce neglect the bears here).
A recent paper published in the Journal of Wildlife Management by ADF&G biologists suggests a plan to reduce predators in a particular Game Management Unit south of Fairbanks, allowing the moose population to grow. But it can't grow too much, because high numbers would eventually lead to an over-consumption of the available forage. Under this program, it would then become "necessary" to kill female moose to stop population growth (and maximize "harvest"). Biologists would supposedly monitor the nutritional status of moose, and start killing females when their nutritional condition declined by some predetermined amount.
It sounds like ADF&G thinks it can play God, regulating populations that have been regulating themselves for thousands of years.
Wildlife policies in Alaska need to change. They need to be written and conducted in a way that shows respect for wildlife. These are living, intelligent, sentient beings. They are not commodities.
Mary F. Willson is a Juneau resident.
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