The Alaska Department of Fish and Game resumed killing wolves from helicopters this week in the Interior and immediately sparked controversy by wiping out a pack that included wolves collared for research by the National Park Service.
The wolf kills in the eastern Interior are part of a predator control effort to increase the numbers of the Fortymile caribou herd, as well as moose populations. The department had agreed beforehand that it wouldn't kill wolves collared by biologists from the Yukon Charley Rivers National Preserve.
But Fish and Game on Wednesday killed all four wolves in the Webber Creek Pack, including two with radio collars, as they roamed state land outside the preserve.
Yukon Charley Superintendent Greg Dudgeon said the population of wolves ranging the preserve was already significantly down before the killing. He said he now plans to order an emergency closure of hunting and trapping wolves in its boundaries.
"The local folks who hunt and trap lose out on opportunities when you have this kind of aggressive approach outside the boundaries. It affects more than just National Park Service managers," he said.
Fish and Game makes no apologies for killing uncollared wolves in the predator control program and said it killed the wolves wearing park service radio collars by mistake.
"A possible collar malfunction or other problems prevented staff from identifying the collared wolves," the department said in a statement Thursday.
Causes of the tracking problem are being investigated, according to the statement.
Fish and Game referred all questions to David James, regional supervisor for the Interior. James did not return repeated messages Thursday afternoon and evening with questions about what happened and the department's statement, which appears to conflict with what he had reportedly told the Park Service.
Dudgeon said he'd spoken to James on Wednesday night.
"My understanding from the phone call last night was that the shooter, whoever that person was, did see the collars," Dudgeon said. "They were aware of the collars."
The Fish and Game statement began by saying the department was "concluding a successful three-day field operation in the ongoing Upper Yukon Tanana wolf control program." The operation began Tuesday and the statement said that nine wolves were killed during the first two days.
The program will resume with the next adequate snowfall in the area, according to the statement. The wolves are tracked in the snow using fixed-wing aircraft, and Fish and Game employees then come in and shoot the wolves from helicopters.
There are five areas of Alaska where the state has authorized predator control from the air by private pilots and gunners in order to boost key populations of game. The Fortymile area is the only of the five where Fish and Game also uses helicopters with its own employees to fly in and shoot the wolves.
Fish and Game said it "continues to coordinate" with National Park Service staff to minimize the impact of the effort on the wolf study in the Yukon Charley preserve. The study has been ongoing for 16 years, and the "alpha male and female" killed had been recently fitted with collars.
Dudgeon said he would be asking the department exactly where the wolves were killed and why. He said he'd asked Fish and Game not to kill any collared wolves, as well as any other wolves in the same packs.
Dudgeon said he made the request because of population numbers for wolves using the preserve. He said 42 wolves were counted in the fall and 26 in February. Wolves always die over the winter, but it was the biggest drop since the preserve started monitoring in 1993, he said.
He said Fish and Game agreed not to kill collared wolves and take no more than seven from the biggest packs that move in and out of the Yukon Charley preserve.
The National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group, called Thursday for an immediate suspension of the wolf killing around the Yukon Charley preserve. The group said it shouldn't resume until the Park Service is satisfied a healthy wolf population is assured.
Wolf advocate Rick Steiner called the killing of collared wolves "disgusting and shameful" and said the program should be halted. The Board of Game authorized predator control after hearing from local residents and hunting advocates.
This is the second year in a row the department has used helicopters to kill wolves in the area of the Fortymile caribou herd. Fish and Game reported killing 84 wolves in the aerial program last year.
The department said it hopes as many as 185 wolves will be taken from within the range of the Fortymile herd this winter, including the efforts of trappers, hunters, private pilots and the state.
The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported that recent wolf surveys show approximately 285 wolves in the control area. The state's objective is to have about 100 in the region. The state's effort is to focus on the area near the Fortymile herd's calving grounds and extend outward to other areas of the herd's range, according to the News-Miner.
Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344.
By SEAN COCKERHAM