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Alaska Board of Game shows affection for any predator control program

Rick Sinnott
Aaron Jansen illustration

Will Rogers' epitaph reads, "I never met a man I didn't like." The Alaska Board of Game can say the same thing about predator-control programs. In meeting after public meeting, the board hears what the public wants and does the opposite. Every proposal to kill more predators, no matter how misguided, is greeted with a firm handshake and a smile.

The board met in Anchorage this week to consider about 100 proposals to change hunting, trapping, and other wildlife-related regulations. Included were four "intensive management" plans developed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The board approved three of the four programs, pushing predator control into new corners of Alaska. The fourth plan was deferred to the board's March 2012 meeting in Fairbanks.

Two of the intensive management plans, deferred from a meeting in Barrow last November, aim to reduce wolf numbers on the Kenai Peninsula. While little new information was presented to the board, both programs were approved, as I predicted. Like their last public airing, these two proposals generated more written comments than the rest of the proposals combined. By my count, 380 of the 386 comments submitted by the public and organizations opposed wolf control on the Kenai.

The public has a strong dislike for aerial predator control, although the practice is somewhat more acceptable when professional biologists do the shooting. Both new programs allow Fish and Game biologists to shoot wolves from helicopters.

Killing more Kenai Peninsula wolves

For most of the 20th century, the northwest corner of the Kenai Peninsula, or Game Management Unit 15A, was a moose hunter's paradise. Massive wildfires, burning unchecked in the foothills and black spruce lowlands, stimulated new woody growth that supported high moose densities. But the last big wildfire was in 1969. Trees and shrubs matured, and by the 1980s the moose population was declining. Most experts agree that habitat, not wolves, limit moose on the Kenai. But the board has no plan to counteract deteriorating moose habitat by starting wildfires or allowing natural fires to burn. Wildfires are unpopular on the increasingly populated Kenai Peninsula.

Advocates of wolf control will tell you moose populations increased because wolves were eradicated on the Kenai in the early 1900s. The temporary absence of wolves, which returned in the early 1960s but weren't well established until 1974, was certainly part of the equation. But moose populations fluctuated wildly even without wolf predation. Unit 15A now supports about 1.3 moose per square mile, which is about average for Alaska.

Board member Ted Spraker, a retired wildlife biologist with decades of experience managing moose on the Kenai, is convinced the moose population will continue to decline without state-sponsored wolf control. However, he admits that aerial shooting combined with the ongoing wolf harvest by trappers and hunters will remove fewer than 50 percent of the unit's wolf population each year. Wolves are prolific breeders. Spraker knows you cannot reduce the size of a wolf population by killing less than 45 to 50 percent annually.

Simple math demonstrates why aerial shooting can't kill 50 percent of the wolves in Unit 15A. Seventy-nine percent of the area is part of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, which is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The wildlife refuge won't allow aerial wolf control on its land. With most of the unit off-limits to aerial shooting, the board hopes department staff can shoot enough wolves on state, borough, and private lands near the towns of Kenai, Soldotna, and Sterling to, in Spraker's words, "buy us some time."

What the board is going to do with more time is anybody's guess. But, according to Spraker, "This board has absolutely no choice." He's right in one sense. The intensive management statute requires the board to reduce predator populations or improve habitat before significantly restricting moose hunting opportunity. But the law does not require the board to invoke intensive management if it would be "inappropriate due to land ownership patterns."

Given this gold-plated excuse to reject a predator control program, the board voted unanimously in favor of the program. The reason was spelled out in the department's plan: every wolf killed is likely to save at least a few moose, whose meat can be reallocated to human consumption.  

Effective way to reduce bull harvest

The board also approved wolf control in Game Management Unit 15C, between Kachemak Bay and Tustumena Lake. The situation in this area is almost the mirror image of Unit 15A. Moose numbers are moderate, but higher than the minimum population objective. Habitat is in relatively good shape.

Similarly, moose harvests have exceeded the minimum harvest objective every year since 2000, except last year. Unfortunately, the board has allowed hunters to overharvest bulls until the ratio of bulls to cows is approaching the level where productivity suffers. To increase the number of bulls, last year the board redefined the antler size for a legal bull, putting bulls with spike or fork antlers off limits and raising the threshold on mature bulls from three to four brow tines. As anticipated, the bull harvest dropped precipitously.

The law does not require the board to implement intensive management if a reduction in human harvest is expected to be brief and is necessary to conserve the population. Spraker argues the new antler restrictions will not be temporary. He believes it'll take years to raise the number of bulls to acceptable levels. In the meantime, Spraker hopes to eliminate cow harvests in Unit 15C at the next opportunity, during the March 2012 meeting in Fairbanks. Local biologists point out that protecting all cow moose will be counterproductive. The unit will end up with too many moose, and the resulting habitat damage will ultimately reduce overwinter survival. Cow moose that suffer from nutritional stress are more likely to reabsorb or abort calves.

Unlike Unit 15A, most of Unit 15C lies outside of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Aerial shooting, hunting, and trapping may be able to effectively reduce the Unit 15C wolf population. An aerial survey early last winter estimated 44 to 52 wolves in the area. The department intends to suspend wolf control if the number of wolves falls below 15, if moose numbers exceed the population objective, or if one or more measures of nutritional stress in the moose population become significant or decline during three consecutive years.

More moose without killing wolves

There is a simpler, cheaper and less controversial way to increase moose harvests in game management units 15A and 15C. Without killing any wolves.

Moose on the Kenai Peninsula are being managed as if they were in a remote setting. But the Kenai is bisected by several major highways and has plenty of roads. As in Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley, many Kenai moose are killed by motor vehicles. Inexplicably, none of these moose, which are salvaged for human consumption, are included in the total human harvest on the Kenai Peninsula.

You can be sure that if wolves were driving the vehicles, every moose they ran over would be chalked up to their quota.  But I digress.

The intensive management law required the department to establish harvest objectives in 2000. Since then, in every year but one, moose harvests were lower in Unit 15A and higher in Unit 15C than the minimum objective. Including all moose killed by motor vehicles and salvaged for human consumption each year adds about 50-150 moose to the total human harvest in Unit 15A and about 50-100 moose in Unit 15C. Counting these moose, from 2000 to 2010 the total human harvest in Unit 15A exceeded the minimum harvest objective in nine years. It barely missed the mark in two other years. During the same period, the total harvest in Unit 15C never fell below the minimum harvest objective and it exceeded the maximum harvest objective in five years.  

Obviously, more accurate accounting will solve the Kenai's moose meat deficit. The state's intensive management statutes and regulations do not require higher levels of hunting opportunity. They require levels of "human harvest" that meet or exceed the established threshold for "personal or family consumption," "consumptive use" and "utilization for meat." In some game management units, like those on the Kenai Peninsula, many moose are killed by motor vehicles. Those moose carcasses should be added to the human harvest to meet harvest objectives. Why kill wolves if you don't have to?

Saving muskoxen from bears

Unless you believe there is no good reason to kill wolves or bears, there are situations where predator control makes sense. Fish and Game area biologist Beth Lenart of Fort Yukon made an excellent case for killing some grizzly bears to protect muskoxen in Game Management Unit 26B, which lies along the Dalton Highway north of the Brooks Range.

Muskoxen were extirpated from Alaska by the late 1800s. In 1969 and 1970 the shaggy beasts were re-established on the North Slope. Muskoxen increased slowly and expanded their range. The population peaked at about 700-800 muskoxen in the mid-1990s, but has declined to about 200. Currently most of the muskoxen on the North Slope are in Unit 26B, where several herds are often seen along the Dalton Highway. Lenart estimates 200-320 grizzly bears live in the area.

Muskoxen herds foil wolf attacks with a tight defensive formation that protects calves like a football team protects its quarterback, but they seem to be less able to fend off the all-out blitz of a hungry grizzly bear. Grizzlies have accounted for about 60 percent of muskoxen adult and calf mortalities in recent years. The muskoxen population is declining, primarily, it is thought, due to bear predation. But anecdotal information suggests that only a few, large male bears do most of the killing.

The department plans to increase muskoxen from 190 to 300 by targeting bears who kill or threaten to kill muskoxen in the portion of Unit 26B outside the bounds of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. By using helicopters and airplanes to kill no more than 10 bears each year, added to a similar number of bears harvested by hunters, Lenart believes biologists can increase muskoxen survival without reducing the bear population.

Bears have never been shot in Alaska to conserve muskoxen. Lenart considers this control program experimental. She will modify or suspend it if there's no evidence of increased survival after three years.

Board member Spraker, who is not completely insensitive to public criticism, called this a "picture perfect program." There is one wrinkle, however, in the department's reasonable and measured approach. In order to approve the plan, the board had to repeal its prohibition on the aerial shooting of bears. We can expect to see future bear-control proposals that depend on aerial shooting.

Next: Snaring grizzly bears

The board was scheduled to consider adding black and grizzly bears to an existing wolf control plan in a portion of Unit 19A, in Western Alaska. The goal is to increase moose harvest. If approved as written, this predator control plan will allow department staff or "agents of the state" to shoot bears from the air or after landing nearby. Private individuals will be permitted to land and shoot black and brown bears of any sex or age, including cubs, as long as the permittee is at least 300 feet from the aircraft. Snaring black bears and, for the first time since statehood, grizzly bears of any sex or age, will also be allowed. 

This was the issue that former Gov. Tony Knowles testified against earlier in the meeting. The board also received a letter opposed to snaring bears signed by 78 wildlife biologists with experience in Alaska. Many were former bear biologists or work with bears for other agencies.

There will be no limit to the number of black or grizzly bears that may be shot or snared by permittees. Permittees could sell tanned or untanned bear hides, another concept that has been resisted by professional wildlife managers for decades because it commercializes the harvest of wildlife and adds an incentive to overharvest. During public testimony, concerns were raised over the amount of new information included in this proposal. To allow the public more time to review, the board deferred action until their March 2012 meeting in Fairbanks.

The board asked that the three approved programs receive an expedited review by the Department of Law so they can be implemented by March, before this winter's snow melts. The state attorney who advises the board recommended it prioritize the programs because another lawyer who reviews all new regulations may not complete the legal analysis and editing before April. After some discussion, dominated by Spraker, the Kenai representative, the board recommended that the two Kenai wolf control programs be approved before the control program for brown bears on the North Slope.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Email him at RickJSinnott(at)gmail.com