ANCHORAGE - The Fortymile caribou herd has grown so fast in recent years that state biologists have declared a program to sterilize and trap wolves a success. They plan to call it quits after this winter.
But Gordon Haber, a free-lance wildlife biologist funded by Friends for Animals, said he thinks the Fortymile herd may have been on the rebound before the program started and the herd would have come back on its own, although more slowly.
The Fortymile experiment does not show that wolf control was a success, Haber said.
Craig Gardner, a Tok-area biologist with Fish and Game, said biologists had planned all along to conclude the four-year program this winter. But the recovery effort went even better than planned, with the herd now totaling some 35,000 animals, Gardner said.
The herd numbered about 22,500 caribou before recovery efforts began. It had declined to about 6,000 in the mid-1970s.
"Before we started, there were definitely some doubting Thomases. But this is a great success story," Gardner told the Anchorage Daily News.
State biologists determined wolves were killing many of the calves and that removing many of the wolves would speed the herd's recovery.
But others aren't so quick to give the state all the credit for the rebound.
Joe Mattie, owner of the Alaska Fur Company, said a privately run wolf-trapping effort begun two years before the Fish and Game program was more effective at reducing the wolf population. The effort guaranteed trappers $400 per wolf pelt, about twice the market price.
"We removed 60 percent of the wolf population in the whole Fortymile area," Mattie said. Trappers took 128 wolves the first winter and 80 the second.
The trapping incentive program stopped in 1997 when the state began its wolf control, because the state didn't want trappers killing the sterilized wolves.
Gardner said he and other biologists sterilized 34 wolves in 15 packs by vasectomy or tubal ligation.
Of those, six later were trapped and a few were killed by other wolves. But because most are still alive and likely will maintain their territories, the benefits of wolf control will last for several years, Gardner said.
Haber, however, said nature played a larger role in the herd's growth than wolf control and sterilization.
The herd has recovered because mild winters led to high pregnancy rates, Haber said. It also is possible that some of the caribou from the Nelchina herd joined the Fortymile, he said.
"People are making all sorts of claims showing how successful this is," Haber said. "But it's just the opposite."