FAIRBANKS -- State wildlife biologists killed 14 wolf pups on the Alaska Peninsula as part of a predator control program to help a struggling caribou herd.
Biologists found the 4- to 5-week-old pups when they landed to collect carcasses of adult wolves shot from a helicopter two months ago near Cold Bay, about 600 miles southwest of Anchorage.
Biologists had killed 14 adult wolves, including mothers of the pups.
"As we got on the calving grounds, we took adults, and in the course of taking adults we found there were pups," said Doug Larsen, director of the state Division of Wildlife Conservation, from Juneau.
"The issue then was do we leave the pups to fend for themselves and starve or do we dispatch them," Larsen said. "Our feeling was that it was most humane to dispatch them."
Each pup was shot in the head.
"It's a quick, humane way to kill them," said area management biologist Lem Butler of King Salmon.
Larsen justified the pup killings to halt a "precipitous decline" in the Southern Alaska Peninsula Caribou Herd. The herd has declined from an estimated 4,100 animals to 600 in six years, in large part because wolves prey heavily on newborn calves.
"Nobody likes to go out and kill critters, particularly when they're young," Larsen said. "But when you have a specific objective and that's the way to achieve that objective, sometimes you have to do things that you don't like."
The department won Board of Game approval to shoot wolves from a helicopter on the herd's spring calving grounds.
"The main goal was to turn around what has been a precipitous decline in the Southern Alaska Peninsula Caribou Herd; doing that involved removing wolves," he said. "We killed 28 wolves as part of that program, and they came out of packs we identified and that was in keeping with the plan."
The dens were on state land, just outside the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. If the dens had been on federal land, "We wouldn't have been in position to go in there," Larsen said.
The state issued a press release June 27 about killing wolves but made no mention of killing pups, only that "wolves from three packs were shot from a helicopter by Alaska Department of Fish and Game staff."
It was the first time in more than 20 years that department biologists killed wolves from the air. Butler said it was his opinion that the use of the helicopter was more pertinent than killing pups.
Omitting the pup killings "wasn't an attempt to hide anything, by any means," Larsen said.
Wildlife scientist Gordon Haber, who often criticizes the department's wolf control programs, noted the pup killings on his Web site.
Haber, who focuses most of his attention on Denali Park wolves with support from the Outside animal-rights group Friends of Animals, said officials did not publicize the pup killings because they feared public backlash.
"They understood how strongly most people would react at the thought of state employees helicoptering to a couple of natal dens and, after killing the adult wolves, grabbing (14) frightened young pups and one-by-one blowing their brains out with a pistol," Haber wrote in his blog.
The department explored options to prevent killing the pups, Butler said.
"We looked into potentially getting them adopted by a zoo but there were no available options," he said.
The wolf kills marked the first time Department of Fish and Game personnel have actively participated in a state predator control program in 15 years. The state's predator control plan has been limited to private pilot and gunner teams shooting wolves from the air or ground in five areas of the state, including three Interior Alaska regions, to boost caribou and moose populations. Almost 800 wolves have been killed in four years.
An initiative on the primary ballot Aug. 26 seeks to make it illegal for anyone except state employees to shoot wolves from the air and only in cases that are declared a "biological emergency" by the Department of Fish and Game commissioner.
Butler said removing wolves appears to have increased calf survival in the Southern Alaska Peninsula herd. Last year, less than 1 percent of newborn calves survived to 4 weeks old. This year, more than 50 percent of calves were still alive.
Haber contends the herd will rebound without killing wolves but state game managers did not want to take that chance.
"You can only hold off so long," Larsen said. "We held off as long as we should have."
Killing pups in dens was a traditional method used by Alaska Natives to control wolf populations. It has been outlawed for decades, though a Native group from Bethel is petitioning the state Board of Game to allow it again in that region.
Killing pups will not become standard department practice, Larsen said.
"I think it's fair to say this was an extremely unique set of circumstances," he said.