Federal officials block Alaska's plan to kill refuge wolves

UNIMAK ISLAND: State says decision could keep caribou hunting on hold.

March 8, 2011 

Alaska wildlife officials said Tuesday they were appalled the federal government rejected their plan to kill wolves to protect caribou on a remote Aleutian Island.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced this week it would not sign off on the state killing seven wolves in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge on Unimak Island.

The decision ignores subsistence needs of Alaskans who live on the island and conflicts with sound wildlife management policies aimed at preserving a rapidly declining caribou herd on Unimak Island, Alaska officials said in a statement.

"If action is not taken soon, hunting will remain closed for years," said Bruce Dale, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game regional supervisor. "Moreover, there is the real possibility of losing not only this caribou herd, but also the wolf population, which depends on the caribou to survive."

Service officials said predator control showed potential to improve future subsistence opportunities but would have negative effects on natural diversity and wilderness character of the island.

The dispute has been simmering since last year. State officials said in May they would move ahead with plans to kill wolves inside the refuge. The Fish and Wildlife Service said doing so would be considered trespass.

Unimak Island is the largest in the Aleutians chain and the closest island to the Alaska Peninsula. It is home to the village of False Pass, which has a population of 41.

The Unimak caribou herd has declined from 1,200 animals in 2002 to about 300 in 2010. Only about 20 were bulls. Hunting has been prohibited, and the state concluded wolf predation on calves has impeded the herd's recovery.

State wildlife officials floated a plan to kill seven wolves on caribou calving grounds, using airplanes and helicopters to spot or selectively shoot wolves preying on caribou calves. Part of the plan also was to possibly move bull caribou to the island to supplement the herd.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last year said it was required by federal law to do an environmental assessment of the state's plan to kill wolves. The state contended the herd needed help sooner. A federal judge sided with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

In its announcement Monday, the Fish and Wildlife Service said the herd has fluctuated considerably over the past century, from a high of 7,000 in 1925 to near-zero in the 1950s. Hunting was suspended in 2009.

The service's Alaska Regional Director Geoffrey Haskett said the agency recognizes predator control as a valid wildlife management tool in support of subsistence when appropriate.

"However, in this case our analysis did not support such a decision," he said.

The service in December prepared its environmental assessment and received 95,000 comments through Jan. 31. Spokesman Bruce Woods said comments prompted a close review of policies and refuge regulations.

Permits remain in place for the state to import caribou bulls from the Southern Alaska Peninsula, which could lower the cow-bull ratio from the current worrisome 20-to-1, he said.

"Even a small number could mean a significant increase," Woods said.

The state also has permits to monitor cows and calves with radio collars, which could nail down whether wolves are the main problem for the herd coming back.

"We don't even have any solid population figures of wolves or bears on the island," Woods said.

State officials said statutes require the department to manage for consumptive use by people. Subsistence hunters, they said, have few alternate sources of red meat.

Corey Rossi, the state's Division of Wildlife conservation director, said the decision hampers the state's ability to manage wildlife held in trust by the state but happen to be on federal land.

"We have an obligation to our citizens to restore this valuable subsistence resource in spite of the lack of federal support," he said.

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