My Turn: Wolf control and caribou savings

Posted: Sunday, August 17, 2008

Alaskans are passionate about their wildlife. We constitute an energized constituency when it comes to fish and game. Predator management in particular, especially the aerial control of wolves, engenders an abundance and diversity of strong opinion, and it will engage our electorate again soon.

While there is no "right" answer to the question of aerial predator control, there are personal preferences. There's information. And, there are consequences.

What I hope to explore here is some misunderstanding surrounding recent actions taken by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to protect the Southern Alaska Peninsula caribou herd.

Over the past decade, this caribou herd has declined from 10,000 animals to fewer than 600. Pregnancy rates have been good, indicating that habitat quality is not the problem. But calf survival has been extremely low, with 99 out of 100 calves dying in the first two weeks after birth. It was predation on these neonatal calves that the department sought to curtail, with approval of the Alaska Board of Game, in order to provide the best opportunity for the herd to recover.

To be effective, the operation was conducted with the use of helicopters, a practice that has been controversial in the past. It was focused on those wolves most likely to be preying on caribou calves, those wolves on the calving grounds. And, it was conducted in early June, to correspond with the calving season, particularly those vital first two weeks of a young caribou's life. This time period is also, inescapably, when wolf pups are being weaned in their dens.

Because removal of adult wolves would leave orphaned pups to starve or be killed by other predators, and because we had no offers from zoos or other facilities to take in such pups, department biologists recognized they would need to be euthanized. Euthanasia is preferred over starvation or predation, and was done according to standards set by the state's Animal Care and Use Committee and the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Some have wondered if the department's operation was illegal, because there is a general prohibition on "denning," the killing of wolf young in the den. Approval of the plan by the Board of Game, however, recognized that all wolves in the calving area were to be killed and that the department was excused in this case from general prohibitions such as denning.

Others have wondered if the department was trying to cover up the killing of pups, because it was not highlighted in press announcements of the program. Rather, we were so intent upon making the public aware of our use of helicopter support, we didn't even think to identify the age, or sex, or characteristics other than the total number of wolves eliminated. It wasn't until weeks afterward that members of the public thought to ask.

While killing pups is unpleasant, it is part of predator control programs around the country for canines such as wolves, foxes, and coyotes. These programs may be distasteful to some people, but they are implemented with specific goals in mind. For the Southern Alaska Peninsula caribou herd, as a result of this spring's program, calf survival has increased from one percent or less to a very substantial 50 percent, giving us hope that the herd's steep decline can be arrested.

Opponents and proponents of predator management have employed factual, emotional, even hyperbolic tactics to make their case. Such can be the nature of public policy debate. But, there are longstanding Alaskans on both sides of aerial predator control. We're hoping those Alaskans can understand that department biologists are striving to satisfy the mandates of our state constitution, statutes of the legislature, and regulations of the Board of Game. They're not looking to break the law or to cover up.

There's room for factual debate and personal preference, there's room for an abundance and diversity of opinion. I hope there's room also to accept that department biologists at times have a difficult job managing our fish and game, and that they are trying to benefit Alaska as they do it.

• Denby Lloyd is commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

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