My turn: Lack of science, planning to blame for low caribou herd

Posted: Tuesday, June 01, 2010

According to the State of Alaska, the problem on Unimak Island is that there are not enough bull caribou to sustain the herd. Its solution is to kill more wolves.

The Board of Game held an emergency meeting May 26 where a proposal was passed to extend wolf trapping and hunting seasons to June 30 for a portion of Unimak Island. The state also decided to use aerial predator control methods to shoot Unimak Island wolves. Alaska is now suing the federal government for blocking proposed predator control on the island, a part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

You have probably heard about this situation, but there are critical points you probably have not heard.

• The state claims that the bull-to-cow ratio has fallen to just below 5-to-100, leaving about 20 bulls on the island. The state seems to think Unimak wolves prefer male calves, disregarding the fact that guided nonresident hunters killed 90 caribou from 2001-2008. In 2008, the state finally recognized there was a problem and shut down sport and subsistence hunts, thus penalizing subsistence hunters for the Alaska Department of Fish & Game's oversight.

• Alaska has not counted the wolves on Unimak Island. Officials guestimate 15-30 wolves.

• During the emergency Board of Game meeting, it was stated that 7-10 wolves would be "removed," a significant number for a group guestimated at 15-30. Nevertheless, the regional area biologist is not concerned about harming the wolf population. After all, the hunt will be limited to the calving grounds.

• There are 400 caribou on Unimak Island, which also has 400 brown bears. I'm not suggesting we kill bears, too. I'm suggesting the state use sound science in wildlife management.

• The extension of wolf trapping and hunting seasons on the western half of the island creates a denning issue, and female wolves will be lactating during this time.

• Game board member Ben Grussendorf stressed that denning creates a public relations problem. Indeed, people have already begun Alaska tourism boycotts as a result of publicity on this issue. This situation added fuel to the fires that began with the removal of the Denali buffer zone and the shooting of Yukon-Charley collared wolves. The state's suit against the feds is being publicized nationwide, if not worldwide.

• Fish & Game and the game board insist that the wolf kill is necessary for Unimak Island subsistence hunters, but since 2000, only 12 caribou were harvested by local residents, while 90 were killed by guided, nonresident hunters.

• Additionally, residents of False Pass, Unimak Island's only community, hunt most of their caribou on the Alaska Peninsula because the terrain there is less challenging. Also, the diets of False Pass residents consists mostly of marine foods.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife has been working with the state since December 2009 when concerns for the caribou herd were raised. Fish and Wildife is following a process determined by law to gather as much information as possible before taking any action. Given the information above, no reasonable person can blame them. But the state of Alaska can, and is now using our resources to sue the federal government in an effort to shoot wolves from aircraft on a national wildlife refuge.

The overarching problem on Unimak Island is lack of sound science and lack of planning by Fish & Game and by the Palin and Parnell administrations. Subsistence hunters deserve better. Wildlife deserves better. Alaskans deserve better.

• Tina M. Brown is a Juneau resident and president of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance.



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