It is spring down in the flat country. There are rusty blackbirds and robins, slate juncos and geese. In the mountains, the signs of spring are also manifest. There is still snow, making it effortless to travel in the freeze of morning and impossible in the heat of afternoon.
On an isolated, unnamed lake far from the highway system, a lone wolf trots into view. I am on a mountainside a half-mile distant and through binoculars I watch and wait. The wolf doesn't look back to see if others in the pack follow, and I watch in vain. He is alone with no more to follow.
This is the first wolf I have seen during this winter of 2011-12. Tracks have been few. Other trappers and hunters are seeing mostly tracks of singles and pairs.
I am in the heart of Game Management Unit 13, the focus of what is arguably the most successful predator management program in Alaska.
Fifteen years ago, it was evident that the predator population was too high in the Copper River Basin and the surrounding foothills of the Alaska Range. Moose numbers were poor and the caribou herd was stagnant. There were many contributing factors, although predators were the primary concern. Hunting seasons had been cut back and harvest numbers were low, but the wolf population was at an all-time high. Seasons were liberalized on bears and wolves, but not many folks eat grizzlies and few even see a wolf.
Intensive lobbying by hunters, trappers, local advisory committees and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game pushed a predator control program through the Alaska Board of Game in 2002. Termed "Intensive Management," the objective was to reduce wolf numbers to a manageable level through a variety of methods.
The reasoning behind Intensive Management is obvious and indisputable -- if one is to hunt the prey species, the predator also needs to be controlled to maintain balance.
The first step was allowing hunters and trappers to hunt wolves from snowmobiles. Aerial "land and shoot" came next, followed by pure aerial hunting.
Almost immediately the program began to show positive results. The moose population stopped its disquieting slide and caribou began to steadily increase.
There are critics of the management agenda. Many people are opposed to wolf control by any means and the response to aerial control is often outrage -- "Cruel! This is not a fair chase!" They are right; it isn't fair, nor is it intended to be. Intensive Management techniques are designed to bring game populations back into a reasonable balance and avoid the wild fluctuations normally found in nature.
The question now in front of us is whether we have that ability and, if so, are static populations truly healthy?
There are people at both extremes on the controversial issue of wolf control. Some hunters would like to see a very high moose population with almost no wolves competing with them. Others, mostly non-consumptive users, while recognizing the need and rationale for hunting, would like to see no predator control of any kind.
Reality is a balance between those opposing viewpoints. If hunters are going to take moose and caribou, then it certainly follows that predators must also be taken. Unit 13, one of the more road-accessible areas of Alaska, still has vast areas that are only reliably reached by aircraft. In those areas, hunters and trappers are not able to take enough wolves to keep the population in a reasonable balance.
A normal moose population, with little or no human influence, will have slightly less bull moose than cows. This is due to natural mortality, mostly during the winter following the rut. Calf production of less than 20 per 100 cows may be the norm.
In areas with relatively heavy hunting pressure, 25 bulls per 100 cows is workable and slightly more than 20 calves for every 100 cows is necessary in order to maintain the population. Factor in a few wolf packs to take out the older and weaker sections of the populations, and you have a balance.
There is a lot more to the equation than this. Wolf kills provide food for other animals; ravens, fox and wolverines depend on them. When wolf numbers get too low, these animals must look for other food sources.
The Copper Basin is seeing more ravens in the populated areas. For the first time in 40 years the upper Susitna River and Amphitheater Pass resident birds are gone. The coyote population is soaring. Trappers are reporting more coyotes this winter than the past 20 years combined.
There are other, more subtle indications. None are definitive in themselves, but when taken as a whole, they are disturbing. There is a balance here that we are unable to reliably define. Wolves are a necessary part of the eco-pyramid; remove them and the entire structure will collapse.
Wolf numbers in Unit 13 are near an all-time low. In the core of the unit they are certainly at the lowest level in my memory. Additionally, the moose population is at, or close to, the numbers of the late 1960s in most areas of the unit. Several hard winters precipitated a crash in the early 1970s and the same scenario could occur now. This winter's deep snow forced moose into concentrated areas. The condition of browse in these locales is a matter of speculation, though there are ongoing studies.
There is no magic number or formula for predator/prey ratios. Intensive Management protocol, as now structured, will continue until moose population and harvest objectives are obtained, or the wolf population in Unit 13 is at an all-time low (the number is 135).
There are no easy answers, and indeed, there may be no definitive solution. But, those of us who utilize game resources and are interested in their management need to get involved and initiate discussions. Perhaps a starting point is some type of "pulse management." Could wolf control could be implemented in an on-and-off pattern to trigger at the midpoints of the population range instead of at the extremes?
The lone wolf trotted smoothly into the willows on at the far end of the lake. Alone, he would take no moose, but rabbits and ptarmigan were abundant. The caribou would soon be returning from their wintering grounds, so he would survive.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives in Paxson. He is a commercial fisherman and a two-time Yukon Quest champion.