The state Board of Game decided Tuesday to protect wolves on Douglas Island from hunters and trappers.
But the board, in the 6-0 vote, said some of the island's wolves could be hunted or trapped if their population reaches at least seven, or if hunters' harvest of deer falls off drastically when wolves are on the island.
Game Board members, who heard the testimony of more than 50 local residents on both sides of the issue over the weekend, said they were looking for a way to let people see wolves and hunt deer.
"All segments of the public deserve consideration," said board member Joel Bennett of Juneau.
The Game Board was responding to a proposal by Voices for Douglas Island Wildlife for a temporary ban while the wolf population built up. The group of about 130 locals was spurred by the trapping in January of seven wolves on a Douglas Island beach.
Many people assumed the wolves were the entire pack, the first pack to be sighted on the island in about 20 years.
State biologists said the trapped wolves were two adults and five pups, although they don't know if the adults were the breeding pair or if the seven animals were the whole pack.
Some deer hunters feared that protecting wolves would lead to a growing population that depleted the deer in a popular, accessible hunting area. Hunters kill about 300 deer on the island each year, state biologists said, although the harvest has been near 200 in some recent years.
"The issue is allocating a small number of wolves - zero to five, six, seven - a year from the trapping and hunting take to allow them to exist so that some people can know they're there, or see them, or hear them, or see their sign," said board member Victor Van Ballenberghe of Anchorage.
The board's action prohibits the hunting and trapping of wolves on the island until state biologists estimate there are at least seven wolves there. Seven is the average size of a Southeast wolf pack. No more than 30 percent of the wolves could be hunted or trapped a year under that provision.
But the new regulation also says hunting and trapping will be reopened if there are wolves on the island and hunters' harvest of deer over two succeeding years falls more than 35 percent from the average of the preceding 10 years, assuming the same hunting effort. At that point, state biologists would decide how many wolves could be hunted or trapped.
Biologists from the state Department of Fish and Game have said it would be difficult to manage a small population of wolves on the island. The wolves can cross Gastineau Channel easily, they said, and it would be hard even to count the wolves in the island's rugged, forested terrain.
Federal land on Douglas Island would remain open to rural residents for subsistence hunting of wolves, said officials from the federal Office of Subsistence Management. Juneau-area residents don't qualify as rural, but residents of some other Southeast areas do.
Members of Voices for Douglas Island Wildlife hailed the Game Board's action.
"I am so impressed with the farsighted perception and vision of the board," said Jenny Pursell, who helped found the group. She said the wolves, if they re-establish themselves on the island, could be enjoyed by thousands of residents and visitors.
But deer hunter Leon Shaul, who is a fisheries biologist, was concerned that the rules still would allow wolves to kill many deer, making it harder for hunters to bag deer or causing the state to restrict hunters.
Shaul said it wouldn't be possible for state biologists to count the wolves on Douglas Island, so officials wouldn't open hunting and trapping of wolves under one provision of the new rules.
And the second "trigger" for allowing people to kill wolves would occur only after three years of poor deer hunting, he said. Although the rule refers to two years of low catch, it takes the state a year to compile the previous year's hunting statistics, he said.
The rules could be self-defeating for wolf-viewing advocates because the wolves will leave the island once they have depleted the deer, he said.
Area wildlife biologist Neil Barten said it would be hard to predict the effect of, say, five or six wolves preying on the deer.
"Wolves eat deer," he said. "There certainly would be fewer deer around. Whether it would be dramatic - you just don't know."
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.