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Has Alaska wolf-control forced park population to nosedive?

Craig Medred
Last fall, federal biologists counted 80 wolves in nine packs ranging the Yukon-Charley National Wildlife Preserve in central Alaska. They can now account for only 28 to 39 wolves in six packs. Denali NPS Twitter feed

The long-simmering dispute between the state of Alaska and the National Park Service over how to manage wildlife in northern ecosystems has erupted again with Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve upset about a 50 percent drop in wolf numbers since fall 2012.

Wolf numbers usually fall significantly over winter due to natural death from starvation, injuries and territorial wars between packs, but the Park Service noted in a press release that the latest drop "is substantially more than normal and coincides with predator control efforts by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game near the preserve."

That's a polite way of saying the state agency has been killing wolves around the perimeter of the preserve to try to give moose and caribou a better chance at survival. The state is engaged in what it calls an "intensive management program'' to maximize moose and caribou numbers. The park service favors what it calls a more natural situation in the 2.5-million-acre preserve.

Largest decline in 20 years 

The preserve, the press released noted, "was established by Congress in the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, in part to maintain the environmental integrity of the entire Charley River Basin... in its undeveloped natural condition for public benefit and scientific study; to protect habitat for, and populations of, fish and wildlife, including... wolves.'"

Federal biologists argue state wolf control has now depressed the Yukon-Charley wolf population. They say a 50 percent decline in numbers is the largest they've seen in 20 years. The previous high was 37 percent.

Last fall, they say, they counted 80 wolves in nine packs ranging the preserve. They can now account for only 28 to 39 wolves in six packs. They concede hunting and trapping might account for up to a half-dozen wolves, and another eight to 10 might have died of natural causes.

But, the press release says, "the majority of wolves that were killed this winter are believed to have been part of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s aerial predator control program outside and adjacent to the preserve.

Maybe.

"We’ve had no formal communication from the State of Alaska on results of their helicopter and fixed- wing predator control work in the Fortymile country,” admits Yukon-Charley Rivers Superintendent Greg Dudgeon. “But through informal conversations we understand they were focusing efforts in the areas outside the preserve."

'Very different mandate'

Federal wildlife biologists admit to being troubled by the way state wildlife biologists manager wildlife.

“We manage Yukon-Charley Rivers and other National Park Service areas in a manner that maintains the natural dynamics of a relatively undisturbed ecosystem,” said Deb Cooper, the agency's associate regional director. “The state of Alaska has a very different mandate with goals to reduce wolf and bear populations in hopes of growing more caribou and moose for hunters. In places like Yukon-Charley Rivers, our two very different mandates bump into each other, and meeting the purposes of these differing frameworks is a challenge for both agencies.”

Park officials said they plan to closely manage summer wolf pup numbers. Pups could replace many of the missing wolves. If not, Dudgeon said the preserve might move to delay fall hunting and trapping seasons for wolves to try to protect more of the animals.

Meanwhile, park officials are putting pressure on the state to back off predator control, noting population objectives for two of three moose populations in the upper Yukon-Tanana Rivers area, as well as for the Fortymile caribou herd, have been met.

There are even hints the predator control program might have been too successful. A 2012 state research report, supported in part by the Park Service, finds signs of potential overgrazing in the herd’s core upland tundra range.

"We hope to continue working with the state of Alaska to find ways to meet our respective missions,'' Dudgeon said. But he added that "the National Park Service will continue to manage this public land unit consistent with our Congressional mandates.”

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com