Plan to kill wolves inside refuge causes rift

Posted: Monday, May 31, 2010

ANCHORAGE - Different mandates over how Alaska wildlife should be managed and a plan to kill wolves inside a national refuge is causing a rift between state and federal managers.

U.s. Fish And Wildlife Service
U.s. Fish And Wildlife Service

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says if the Alaska Department of Fish and Game goes ahead with its plan to conduct aerial predator control inside the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, it will consider those state employees trespassers and go to the U.S. Attorney.

The threat does not appear to faze Fish and Game. The agency held a briefing last Wednesday in which there was every indication it would go forward with the wolf-kill mission, beginning as early as Tuesday.

On Friday, the state sued the federal agency. It is seeking a court order to go ahead with plans to kill seven wolves in the refuge - the minimum number state biologists say will maintain the Unimak Island caribou herd at depleted levels. The herd is a primary source of subsistence meat.

Larry G. Bell, a Fish and Wildlife assistant regional director in Anchorage, said the federal agency wants more time to assess the situation. It needs time to conduct a review required by the National Environmental Policy Act, also known as NEPA, he said.

"We consider predator control on national wildlife lands a significant action," Bell said, one that could create considerable public controversy and perhaps require a longer environmental review.

The state brought its concerns to the federal agency six months ago, Bell said. Now, the state is not willing to wait for the review of the Southwest Alaska herd. It does not think a NEPA review is required, he said.

Bell said if the Unimak mission goes forward, it would be the first time that aerial predator control has been conducted inside a national refuge in Alaska. At the very least, the state would need a special use permit to conduct the operation, he said.

Bell said it doesn't appear the state has requested one.

In addition, Fish and Wildlife is not convinced that aerial predator control is appropriate at this time given the agency's mandate to manage for "natural diversity," Bell said.

Under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which required setting aside of public lands in the national interest, most of Alaska's national refuges are managed with three purposes in mind: managing for natural diversity, meeting treaty obligations with other countries and allowing for subsistence opportunities.

Aerial predator control "does not fit well within our diversity mandate," Bell said.

When Fish and Wildlife manages for natural diversity, it considers historic highs and lows of animal populations. In the Unimak caribou case, the herd actually disappeared for eight years but eventually grew again. Now, it numbers about 400 animals, about a third of what it once was.

Fish and Game thinks aerial predator control would fix that problem. At the briefing last Wednesday, Corey Rossi, the director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation, and state biologists discussed mission specifics, including shooting wolves from helicopters and gassing pups in their dens with carbon monoxide.

An overhead projector showed a chart with a line trending down to indicate what will happen to the herd if action is either delayed or not taken.

"It is on its way out without some intervention," Rossi said.

Fish and Wildlife wants to figure out what caused the caribou population on Unimak to crash before allowing state biologists to kill wolves on the calving grounds, Bell said.

There are too many unanswered questions, he said. How many wolves are there? How many bears are there? What is the impact of predation by bears on caribou?

State biologists say they have it figured out. It's wolves eating caribou calves.

"It is simply a survival issue after they are born," said area biologist Lem Butler.

Fish and Game recently conducted aerial predator control on state land to remove wolves on caribou calving grounds on the southern Alaska Peninsula. Twenty wolves were killed and nearly as many pups were either shot or gassed.

The herd is growing, state biologists say.

Bell said the federal and state agencies have a long history of working together to manage wildlife guided by a 1982 memorandum of understanding.

A look at the MOU illustrates the complexity of the relationship.

It states that under the state constitution, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has primary responsibility to manage fish and wildlife within the state. It also says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for managing fish and resident wildlife populations for natural diversity on its lands.

"We try to the extent possible to have a cooperative understanding," Bell said.

The rift over the Unimak herd is just the latest where the state is butting heads with the federal government over Alaska's wildlife resources.

The state is challenging the federal government on Endangered Species Act listings for polar bears and Cook Inlet belugas. The Alaska Board of Game recently did away with a buffer zone that protected Denali National Park wolves from hunters and trappers on state land. State biologists conducting aerial predator control mistakenly killed a pack of Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve wolves, even after the refuge manager expressed concern that wolf numbers were low this year.

Gov. Sean Parnell said Friday that the federal agency has erected "obstacle after obstacle" over the Unimak herd in what has become a pattern of behavior in which federal agencies are usurping state prerogatives.

Bell said U.S. Fish and Wildlife wants to continue to work cooperatively with the state.



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