ANCHORAGE - State wildlife officials believe they have saved more than 1,400 moose or nearly 3,000 caribou - or some combination thereof - with a winter program to kill wolves from aircraft, although the wolf kill remains far below what the state wanted.
Pilot-gunner teams have taken 124 wolves to date, according to Bruce Bartley, spokesman for the Alaska Division of Wildlife Conservation. The goal was 455 to 670 wolves.
Still, the kill, which is ongoing, is more than the 97 wolves gunners took last year.
The program runs as long as conditions allow or until state biologists decide wolf-kill quotas have been met. The kill has been low this year because of a March that lacked the fresh snow and good light needed for optimum hunting conditions.
The exact number of moose or caribou saved by thinning wolf populations is hard to determine. Fish and Game's ungulate survival calculations are based on an average consumption of approximately 12 moose or 24 caribou per wolf per year.
A kill of 124 wolves would thus translate to 1,488 moose or 2,976 caribou or some combination thereof.
But if the moose are small - calves or yearlings - and easy to kill, the wolves might eat more. If the hunting is difficult, the wolves might be forced to survive on less. And in some cases, wolves can supplement their main diet of moose and caribou with other prey such as Dall sheep or beavers.
Meanwhile, the number of moose and caribou saved for reproductive purposes, wildlife viewing and some hunting could be much smaller if wolves killed in March or April are quickly replaced by cubs in the summer. Wolves have high reproductive rates, leading some biologists to question the effectiveness of the hunts.
Studies conducted on the Kenai Peninsula by noted biologist Rolf Peterson from Michigan Technological University found that even if 40 percent of the wolves in a pack died over a winter, pack sizes could be rebuilt by the start of the next winter.
Peterson found the Kenai wolves killed, on average, one moose every 4.7 days.
The hunting efficiency of wolves in winter is what led state wildlife officials to support aerial wolf hunting - or wolf control as it is commonly called - in areas of the state where biologists believe moose and caribou populations have been depressed by predation from bears and wolves, bad winters or in some cases by humans overhunting them.
The ability of wolf populations to quickly rebuild and retain high rates of predation has been one of the arguments opponents of the hunts have used to criticize aerial gunning as inefficient and unnecessary. However, most opposition to the hunts is built around an affection for wolves by proponents.
Aerial wolf control in Alaska remains highly controversial. Citizen efforts to stop it continue. Alaska voters have twice approved initiatives to stop the hunts, and another is slated to go on the ballot later this year.
In March, Superior Court Judge William F. Morse invalidated the aerial killing of wolves in several small areas of the state while issuing a ruling upholding the predator control program. The suit was filed by Friends of Animals, Defenders of Wildlife and the Alaska Wildlife Alliance.
Ron Clarke, assistant director of the state's Division of Wildlife Conservation, told The Associated Press that Morse's ruling was largely a victory for the program.
"It reaffirms the state's position," he said. "We thought we were doing it appropriately and for the most part we are."
Later in March, the shortfalls identified by Morse were fixed and the programs reactivated, according to Cathie Harms, spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
But Priscilla Feral, executive director for Friends of Animals, wasn't satisfied.
"The state's mean-spirited and deeply unpopular wolf-shooting forays must stop," she told the Associated Press.
Wolf-control teams in airplanes kill a fraction of the 1,200 to 1,300 wolves taken by trappers in Alaska each year, but the airplane kills remain at the center of a hot debate.