Schandelmeier: Predator control brings disturbing changes

John Schandelmeier

There are few people in the woods this time of the year. Most hunting seasons are on hold during October, and trapping has yet to begin. However, our family is still out and about on a daily basis. The sled dogs are in training. On most days we cover 20 or 30 miles of the backcountry. There is much to see and reflect on during the fall month.

The leaves are off of the willows, making visibility good. There is a skiff of snow on the ground that comes and goes with the varying temperatures that allows us to see new tracks on a regular basis. The small animals are scurrying, getting prepared for winter. Moose and caribou are in rut and up for most of the day.

We train in two different areas -- Jarvis Creek, near Delta Junction, and the east end of the Denali Highway. Both areas are near timberline, but are quite diverse. Each boasts a good population of moose and both have caribou present. Small game on the Denali is primarily ptarmigan, while Jarvis hosts rabbits and sharp-tailed grouse.

Coyotes abound in the Delta area. Windswept fields and ridges make for easy travel. There are a few fox along the higher terrain and good numbers of both in the farm areas. The soft snow near Paxson and in the Maclaren valley keeps coyote numbers depressed. Fox are lighter and can travel more easily in soft conditions.

Or at least that is what I used to think ...

Coyotes have moved into the Denali country in a big way. The snow cover is the same as always. The past several seasons have been deep snow years. What has changed?

Large predator numbers have been altered, primarily by reducing the wolf population.

Game Management Unit 13 is in what is termed an Intensive Predator Management Area. This means the area is managed primarily for a good moose and caribou population. Seasons on the main predators of large ungulates have been liberalized. In parts of the unit, an aerial wolf-control plan has been implemented and is ongoing. Grizzly season is open year-round.

This may be a good thing for the short term, but is it the answer for the long haul?

The moose population is excellent at the moment. Some areas may be near the carrying capacity of the range. At this time, the true state of browse quality is unknown, though studies are underway. Feed is very plentiful during summer and fall, but snow cover affects the availability of winter food. Deep snow hampers movement of both moose and caribou.

One thing that was learned from the late spring of 2013 was that animal numbers can change dramatically within a month or two. A Nelchina caribou herd that was to allow 5,000-plus harvested animals changed to a population that could withstand a take of less than half of that number. Calf survival, due to late snow, is only at 19 percent, one of the lowest on record.

Obviously, weather or feed conditions could influence the moose population in much the same way. Predator numbers have little or nothing to do with such dramatic ungulate declines.

But the number of wolves and bears have other, more subtle, impacts. A healthy wolf population keeps coyotes in check. Coyotes don't move well in soft snow, so wolves can catch them and eat them. Coyotes eat fox. Fox eat voles, and so on. Large predators leave carrion on the ground for smaller animals and birds. Ravens, magpies and gray jays eat berries and in turn scatter seeds.

I realize this thinking is extremely long-term; predator control that is done for 10 years or so may have few lasting effects.

However, the immediate differences I can see in areas impacted by predator control disturb me. If there are changes that are obvious in a short period of time, what is happening that I don't see? Other trappers and outdoorsmen are also seeing eco-system distresses.

What is the answer? That is beyond my knowledge. But I think this is an issue that needs discussed on a management level. I personally don't believe that we can successfully manage our ungulates by only managing for ungulates.

As we travel with the dog team during the transition between seasons, there are many things to see. Rutting bull moose stand their ground and threaten as we pass. Ptarmigan that have already turned to white sit tight under cover. When the team is running smoothly, there is time to reflect and wonder how much we really understand about the wild world we move through.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives near Paxson with his family. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time Yukon Quest champion.


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