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Kenai Peninsula wolves prove resilient in face of harsh history

Jenny NeymanRedoubt Reporter

Between poisoning, hunting and trapping pressure and disease, the Kenai Peninsula has not proven a very hospitable home to wolves over the years.

As a companion to Marybeth Holleman’s presentation on her new book, “Among Wolves: Gordon Haber’s Insights Into Alaska’s Most Misunderstood Animal,” at Kenai Peninsula College on April 2, retired Kenai National Wildlife Refuge biologist Ted Bailey gave an overview of the history of wolves on the peninsula.

They’ve had their ups and downs since the late 1800s, with pressure from humans being one through line in their history. When the gold rush hit the Kenai Peninsula in 1885-86, the thousands of prospectors hoping to strike it rich brought a hefty distrust of wolves. Apparently they feared a rabies outbreak like they had seen in the Klondike, Bailey said, so they used poison to reduce the wolf population. Poison also was a method of choice for those wanting to harvest fur-bearers to sell the pelts for money during the winter. By 1915, Bailey said, the wolves of the Kenai Peninsula were gone.

By around 1965 they were returning, thought to have emigrated from the mainland after wolves started receiving protection by the fledgling state government.

“The roles were kind of switched compared to today,” Bailey said. “Back then it was the federal government that was poisoning wolves, and the state of Alaska, at statehood, they changed the outlook on wolves. They made the wolf a big game species and they protected it and developed seasons. Today it is kind of the opposite.”

On the peninsula today, the Alaska Board of Game has initiated predator control programs, expanding hunting and trapping opportunities and allowing aerial shooting of wolves in some areas, in an effort to reduce pressure on the moose population. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, meanwhile, does not allow these liberalized wolf-harvest measures on the federally managed Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

When wolves re-established themselves on the peninsula they did so with protection from the state, with no hunting or trapping seasons. A hunting season for wolves was instituted in 1974, with a trapping season added the following year.

The first study of wolves on the peninsula was conducted from 1976 to 1983 for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the Kenai National Moose Range (later renamed the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge) by Rolf Peterson, particularly noted for his study of the wolves of Isle Royale National Park in Michigan. Three to seven packs were monitored in that time, and the study found an average pack size of 11.2 (from two to 20), an average pack territory of 246 square miles (from 68 to 601 square miles), a density of 18.2 wolves per 1,000 square kilometers, and an average human-caused mortality (hunting and trapping) of about 33 percent.

The wolf population of the peninsula at that time was estimated at 186 wolves, with about 71 percent on the western Kenai Peninsula in what today would be Alaska Game Management Unit 15, and about 29 percent on the eastern peninsula, today’s GMU 7. About 44 percent were thought to be on refuge land. Bailey expects that’s still the case today.

Genetically, wolves of the peninsula were found to be indistinct from those of the mainland, so if there ever was a separate Kenai strain of wolf, it’s likely now extinct. Yet the Kenai Peninsula wolves were distinct in one aspect, albeit an ignoble one. They experienced a prevalence of diseases before their mainland counterparts.

“(The Kenai Peninsula wolves) were the first Alaskan wolves to acquire several dog-related diseases and parasites,” Bailey said.

Peterson’s study included looking for antibodies to dog diseases that had spread to the wolf population, indicating a study subject had been exposed to illness. Studies showed up to 70 percent of the 50 wolves tested per year of the study had been exposed to canine parvovirus. The first documented deaths of wolves in Alaska from canine distemper virus occurred on the Kenai Peninsula in 1978, and biting dog lice was first found among peninsula wolves in 1981-82. Bailey said that the latter infestation was probably due to the already poor condition of the wolves, rather than the lice causing the poor condition.

The refuge continued Peterson’s study from 1982 to 1993, capturing, radio collaring and monitoring 107 wolves on the peninsula. In that time human harvest averaged 61 percent in the early 1980s and declined to 14 percent in the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, wolf density did not increase with that decline in harvest, so it is thought that disease and the decreasing moose population were factors in the wolves’ decline.

The same challenges to the survival of a pack from hunting, trapping and other human predator-control methods exist on the peninsula as Dr. Gordon Haber, the subject of Holleman’s book, found in Denali wolves, in that taking an alpha wolf has a disproportionately large impact than the death of a less-vital pack member. Worldwide study has shown that when an alpha breeder is lost, pups survive 90 percent of the time in packs of more than six wolves, 56 percent of the time if only one alpha is lost and only 9 percent of the time if both alphas are lost, Bailey said.

Another interesting factoid is the appearance of Kenai wolves. About 33 percent of wolves on the Kenai were black in Peterson’s initial study. Over time that decreased 13 percent in 2000.

“Nobody knows the cause of that, why a percentage changed colors from black to white or silver gray,” Bailey said.

Of all that is known and still to be learned about wolves on the peninsula and beyond in Alaska, one fact remains consistent, Bailey said.

“No matter where wolves are, management of wolves is controversial,” he said.

This story originally appeared in The Redoubt Reporter and is republished here by permission.