For the first time since statehood, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game plans to target northern Kenai Peninsula wolves as part of a larger plan to boost moose numbers.
The state plans to trap and possibly shoot wolves from the air in the northwest corner of Game Management Unit 15, near Kenai and Soldotna. The targeted area covers up to 83 square miles.
But even the state's own wildlife biologists say the biggest problem for northern Peninsula moose isn't wolves. It's wildfires -- or the lack of them.
"It's an area that historically has had really widespread fires," said Thomas McDonough, a Fish and Game research biologist based in Homer. "Without that widespread fire, the moose population isn't going to increase significantly."
Big fires kick-start the plants and trees that moose eat. They torch tall spruce and spruce forests, leaving clearings where brush, low willow, and young aspen and birch thrive. The last major fire in the area was in 1969, when an abandoned campfire sparked a 90,000-acre blaze. Since then, the leafy trees in the area have grown too tall for moose to browse.
Researchers say they've discovered moose suffering from malnutrition. Some starved to death in the last few winters.
Yet letting a naturally-caused wildfire burn to create moose browse could jeopardize homes in Sterling or Soldotna. It could send a plume of smoke into Anchorage, even disrupt flights in and out of Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.
"Fires are God's way of building moose habitat," said Larry Van Daele, Fish and Game's regional supervisor in Anchorage. "In recent times, there have been so many people and so much infrastructure on the Kenai that wildfires burning out of control would not be an option."
Listening to hunters
The predator control directive came from the Alaska Board of Game, which suggested the strategy in March at a Soldotna meeting packed with local hunters clamoring for help.
The wolf-control part of the plan reflects hunting pressure more than biology, state officials acknowledge.
"Yes, it is a nod toward increasing the amount of moose available for hunters because that's part of our mandate," Van Daele said. "Both the direction we got from the Board and the public, they would like to see the number of moose on the Kenai Peninsula increase."
The plan could backfire and lead to even fewer moose, critics say.
Reducing predators on the Kenai could lead to more moose with even less food to go around, said Claire Colegrove, Alaska representative for the Defenders of Wildlife.
"The biologists in that area have shown that the best way to increase moose populations is with increased vegetation," Colegrove said. "If there were more moose, there would be less vegetation."
But numerous hunters expressed their appreciation in interviews for the state's decision to target predators.
"Between the wolves and the bears, there's a serious predation issue here," said Steve Meyer, a longtime hunter who sits on the local fish and game advisory committee and Safari Club International board.
The chairman of the Game Board says reducing predators on the northwest Kenai will give moose a chance to bounce back while the agency works with landowners to restore the second-growth shrubs and young trees the animals need for food, particularly in winter.
"What the board decided to do was reduce wolf numbers to arrest the moose population decline and give ourselves more time to work on habitat enhancement," Game Board chair and Soldotna resident Ted Spraker said in a statement.
Fish and Game last spring joined with Kenai Natives Association to clear 85 acres north of Sterling off Swanson River Road. Additional habitat projects are in the works on federal, state, borough and private lands, using machines, not fire. Fish and Game is also working with the Alaska Department of Transportation to reduce roadkill by clearing brush and trees along highways.
The state hasn't ruled out prescribed burns to improve habitat, officials say. Any prescribed fires would have to be "very carefully controlled," Van Daele said. "Controlling a fire is kind of like controlling a teenager."
Predation hard to gauge
Wolves on the Kenai once thrived, but trappers and miners poisoned them out of existence by the early 1900s. A government predator control program took many wolves in later decades into the 1950s. Fish and Game ended the practice of poisoning and bounties to facilitate the wolf's return in the early 1960s. Trapping started in the 1970s.
Meanwhile, moose numbers in the area now slated for predator control -- called Sub-unit 15a -- cycled up and down depending on fire-driven habitat conditions until the 1990s.
After the 1969 fire, wolves increased in the area of 15a. By the early 1990s, the brush and trees that grew up after the fire started getting too tall for moose to eat.
Today, biologists estimate 1,300 to 1,800 moose are in 15a, compared to 1,800 to 2,300 five years ago.
It's unclear just what role wolves play in any moose declines.
McDonough said he didn't have accurate numbers on how many moose were killed by wolves in the last two winters. A few appeared killed by predators but his study wasn't broad enough to get more detail, he said.
This winter, Fish and Game plans to hire a local trapper and also use one or two pilots to start wolf surveys once the snow falls, officials say. The pilots will be authorized to shoot wolves but only if the animals show up in a clearing and the conditions protect the public, Van Daele and regional management coordinator Gino Del Frate said.
Several state officials said their preference is to rely on trapping as much as possible.
The predator-control strategy in 15a is authorized through the state's 20-year-old Intensive Management policy triggered when moose numbers drop below population and harvest objectives.
Area biologists in 2011 unsuccessfully asked the Board of Game to lower the goals in 15a -- the current population goal is 3,000 to 3,500 moose, about twice the current number -- to better reflect current and expected habitat conditions there, given the lack of big fires. A similar proposal from a private citizen failed this year.
The last time biologists counted that many moose was February 1991, Kenai area wildlife biologist Jeff Selinger said.
Meanwhile, the Board in March slightly liberalized this fall's moose hunt in the subunit, adding back one-side spike moose after two years of restrictions on the yearling males to improve breeding success.
"It's one of the most important parts of my job, as I see it," Selinger said. "When we can identify opportunity to harvest animals, if the public wants that opportunity, we've got to get that information out there and it's up to the board to decide."
Biologists say there may be as many as 60 wolves in 15a, where hunters and trappers take an average of 10 every year. State law allows the total number of wolves to drop as low as 15. Biologists say it's highly unlikely that many will be killed this winter because so much of the land in 15a is managed by the Kenai wildlife refuge.
Some predator-control proponents blame federal refuge managers for undermining the state's efforts.
"Unfortunately, the wildlife refuge isn't cooperating with the state on the wolf predation thing," said Meyer, who also criticized the lack of prescribed burning on the refuge.
Refuge manager Andy Loranger said he balances a complicated mix of users that range from recreational and subsistence hunters to wildlife viewers. More than 1 million acres of the refuge is managed as designated wilderness.
Hunters can take up to five wolves a year on the refuge, along with the rest of Unit 15.
"Intensive manipulation of predator populations is not consistent with our mandates, our responsibilities," Loranger said.
As for fire, he said, the refuge faces the same public pressure as the state does.
"The challenges of allowing fire to burn on the refuge are becoming greater as we have more need to ensure the public and firefighters are protected," Loranger said. "That's the number one priority."
Reach Zaz Hollander at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4317.
By ZAZ HOLLANDER