The state Department of Fish and Game clarified this week how biologists will deal with wolf pups orphaned by predator control programs.
Killing pups in dens will still be allowed - but only if the department has no other options. Pups found outside dens will be treated as adults.
The new policy was announced Friday at the Board of Game meetings in Juneau. Over the next several days, the Board will also consider several proposals that would allow hunters to kill juvenile wolves and bears in their dens.
Fish and Game's newly explicit policy comes after the department faced public outcry for killing 14 wolf pups that were orphaned from its predator control program - but without telling the public or the Board of Game beforehand. The program was intended to keep wolves from preying on the Southern Caribou Herd, which has seen low calf survival recently.
The state is being sued by a wildlife activist who says the predator control activities violated an explicit denning prohibition.
But the Department of Law has said that rule was trumped by the Board of Game, which told Fish and Game to kill "all wolves" in the area. Some Board of Game members, such as chairman Cliff Judkins, said they understood their authorization to kill "all wolves" might well include wolf pups. Others said they probably wouldn't have allowed it if they had known.
The board signaled that it may be more frank about such pups from now on.
"Sometimes we assume things and think them, but we need to clearly put them on the record," said Judkins.
The department said that killing orphaned pups was more humane than leaving them to die. But it faced widespread public criticism for the killings, including criticism that it hadn't done enough to find homes for pups. Fish and Game said no zoos had requested wolves earlier this year, but it made no calls to find homes for them.
Now the department, if faced with the possibility of a spring predator control program, will more actively try to place pups, according to a draft protocol signed by Wildlife Division director Doug Larsen. Officials will call Alaska zoos and a national zoo advisory group that deals with wolves. They will find zoos nationwide that are looking for wolf pups and confirm that they have space for them. The Alaska Zoo and Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center members, for their part, have agreed to help ask around about spots for pups.
The new policy doesn't satisfy those who abhor denning in any circumstance.
Wade Willis of Defenders of Wildlife objected that the department will not prioritize seeking out the pups of any lactating females that are shot in the course of predator control, and that the department isn't planning to limit its control program to seasons when pups in dens are less likely to be orphaned.
Denning proposals take heat
Meanwhile, the Board of Game is set to consider proposals over the next few days that would allow the public to kill wolves or bears in dens, apart from the department's own predator control programs.
Those writing denning proposals included the Orutsararmiut Native Council and several Interior advisory committees to the Board of Game. They were supported by Alaska hunters and trappers' associations and seven other advisory committees.
Taking wolves in dens is prohibited in trapping and wolf predation control program regulations, but not under hunting regulations.
Proposers said allowing denning would promote the moose and caribou populations they rely on for meat and hides.
"'Denning,' as labeled by western society, was a known generational practice in areas of rural Alaska that some families considered to be their responsibility," wrote the Native council in its proposal.
"The present state predator management programs are effective, but their future is tenuous," wrote the Central Kuskokwim Advisory Committee in another proposal.
But widespread opposition to denning included wildlife activism groups and more than 150 others.
"I do not want denning to be practiced in the state of Alaska at all," wrote Kimberly Burrows of Homer.
Fish and Game supports denning of bears in customary and traditional areas, as long as people also use the meat, Larsen said. The department recommended against allowing denning of wolves.
The Board of Game is meeting in Centennial Hall in downtown Juneau. Meetings began Friday and are scheduled to continue each day through Tuesday. The board decides on regulations and allocation for hunting and trapping, and is composed of seven members appointed by the governor. Deliberations began Saturday, after two days of public testimony and staff reports.