ANCHORAGE -- Wolves could be shot and killed as early as this winter in a state-sponsored predator control program to help moose.
Initial findings of a five-year, nearly $1 million study have concluded that predator control will be required to increase the moose population around McGrath, an Interior village of about 350 people where complaints of too-few moose go back 10 years.
The study comes at the urging of residents who say wolves and bears are killing moose, leaving too few to meet their needs. People in the villages of McGrath, Takotna and Nikolai rely on moose for meat.
Alaska State Wolf Plan
If hunting and trapping more bears and wolves doesn't do the trick, a lethal wolf control program could go into effect this winter for part of a 5,300-square-mile area known as Game Unit 19D.
"Our goal is to eliminate wolf predation in that area," said Patrick Valkenburg, research coordinator for the Division of Wildlife Conservation's Interior Region, referring to an 850-square mile study area near McGrath. "We are going to shoot all the wolves that hunt in that area."
If locals can't trap enough wolves, pilots will be hired for land-and-shoot operations -- spotting wolves from the air, landing and hunting them on the ground.
If that doesn't work, Fish and Game employees will shoot the wolves from helicopters.
Valkenburg said the goal is to kill about 80 percent of the wolves in the study area, about 40-50 animals.
The northeast end of the game unit is near the boundary of Denali National Park, which is home to several wolf packs that occasionally move into the game unit. Wolves will not be killed in those areas, Fish and Game said.
It may be necessary to kill about 50 black bears, Valkenburg said.
"What we would likely do is shoot them so we can salvage the meat," he said.
About a dozen grizzly bears would be relocated, perhaps to lands northwest of Galena and north of the Brooks Range. Any plan involving the killing or relocating of bears won't be put into effect until next year. The program is expected to cost about $100,000 to $200,000 per year for several years.
Vic VanBallenberghe, a wildlife biologist and former member of the Board of Game, said the state is moving too fast. He said more needs to be known about wolf predation in winter. And the study on moose calf survival should go through next summer, he said.
"Every time in the last 25 years we have tried a shoot or snare program it has abruptly come to an end when public opinion finds it intolerable," VanBallenberghe said, one of eight scientists who reviewed the study findings.
Wolves were poisoned in the 1940s and 1950s before the Legislature banned that practice soon after Alaska became a state in 1959.
Aerial shooting was practiced throughout the Interior until the passage of the federal Airborne Hunting Act in 1971. Land-and-shoot hunting took the place of aerial hunting in many areas of Alaska, and continued until 1996 when voters banned it. Voters last fall again rejected limited land-and-shoot hunting of wolves.
The last time a lethal wolf control program was allowed in Alaska was in the early 1990s to protect caribou herds south of Fairbanks. While largely a snaring program, some wolves were shot, Valkenburg said.
Alaska has never had a lethal predator control program for bears because the state has relied on hunting to keep numbers in check. But it's been hard to convince hunters they need more than one bear hide on their walls, he said.
Gov. Tony Knowles, who has opposed land-and-shoot hunting of wolves in the past, will have to approve any new predator control plan. The study was conducted in part because the governor called for more research.
Harsh winters, along with moose and bear predation, have been blamed on keeping moose numbers depressed around McGrath. The population has dropped from about 1,900 five years ago to about 830 now. Fish and Game would like to see 3,000 to 3,500 moose in the game area with harvest levels of 130 to 150 a year.
Radio collars fitted in July show that bears and wolves are killing about two-thirds of calves in the study area. By early June, researchers had fit 66 moose calves with collars. Forty-one calves were dead less than two months later.
Biologists found that 17 had been killed by grizzly bears, 16 by black bears, six by wolves, one by drowning, and one undetermined.
Fish and Game biologists were somewhat surprised at the impact of wolves, Valkenburg said. They also were surprised at how grizzly bears were affecting moose calf survival.
Researchers found that the area east of the Big River toward the South Fork Kuskokwim River is a concentrated moose calving ground. Moose share the east area with about a dozen grizzly bears. In that area, 19 moose calves were collared and 15 were killed. Grizzly bears killed 12 of the them.
Relocating wolves and bears to other areas is unrealistic, Valkenburg said.
"We have run out of places to take the wolves," he said. "Most people don't want grizzly bears dumped in their back yards."