Six months after a federal judge ordered an environmental study before the state could start slaughtering wolves on Unimak Island in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is out with an environmental assessment on wolf and caribou management on the 1,571-square-mile island.
It endorses the state's original plan, and offers four options for dealing with a shrunken Unimak caribou herd. One option is the "no action" alternative required in all environmental assessments. The other three involve gunning wolves in one way or another -- from helicopters, from airplanes or from the ground. Environmentalists are predictably outraged. The Center for Biologist Diversity has initiated a letter-writing campaign.
What has been happening with the Unimak caribou herd is not well understood, said Rebecca Noblin, the organization's Alaska spokeswoman, and "there is no scientific evidence this is going to help."
State officials, however, see no downside to killing wolves. A variety of studies in the 49th state have shown that removing predators tends to help their prey, and the wolves have shown themselves an extremely resilient species so long as they have wild habitat in which to live. State biologists admit there is no guarantee that killing wolves that prey on Unimak caribou will help the herd grow, but they believe it is the best chance for a population which now numbers only about 400 animals.
Back in the 1920s, an estimated 7,000 caribou lived on Unimak, an island in the Aleutians about 700 miles southwest of Anchorage. By the 1950s, all the caribou were gone, or at least biologists couldn't find them. Gradually though, the caribou returned, apparently by migrating from the nearby Alaska Peninsula. By the start of the new millennium, the herd had stabilized in the range of 1,000 to 1,500 animals, and then began another decline. From 2002 to 2009, according Alaska Department of Fish and Game data, the population plummeted from almost 1,300 animals to about 400.
A year ago, when the state first proposed killing wolves, state biologists were warning of an "imminent and perhaps irreversible decline of caribou on Unimak Island." But that doesn't appear to have happened, said Nancy Hoffman, the manager of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. Based in remote Cold Bay -- a community of about 100 centered around the runway of an old, World War II air base -- Hoffman oversees nearby Unimak Island along with the Izembek refuge. Hoffman said poor snow conditions this year have to date prevented biologists from getting a good count of the number of caribou left in the Unimak herd, but a "composition count" in the fall showed what might be considered some improvement.
A dangerously low ratio of bull caribou to cows appeared to have improved, she said, as had the ratio of calves to cows in the herd. State officials last year put the bull-cow ratio at five per 100 and warned that ratios of less than 10 per 100 might threaten reproduction. Hoffman said that the survey this fall, however, showed the ratio creeping back toward the latter number. And the ratio of cows to calves, which hit rock bottom in 2009 when only three calves survived for every 100 cows, had come back up as well.
"I wouldn't call that (herd) decreasing," Hoffman said.
Source: Unimak EA outsourced with 'predetermined outcome'
Hoffman, however, has not been directly involved in the environmental assessment done for the Unimak herd. The EA was completed by GAP Solutions Inc., which lists an address in Pocatello, Idaho, and no phone number. Biologists who provided data for the study said the contract was overseen by Dave Allen, the former and retired regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage. Allen could not be reached for comment.
Anchorage biologist Wade Willis, a former state biologist and sometimes critic of that agency, said the Unimak EA (PDF) was the first ever done by Allen. Willis also noted the whole process was a bit unusual.
Fish and Wildlife staff usually does the assessments. Asked why that didn't happen in this case, Hoffman said, "that's a good question. This contract was done out of the regional office."
Fish and Wildlife staff who requested anonymity for fear of being transferred to remote outposts said the study was contracted to Allen with a predetermined outcome after the state went into federal court last spring to try to get a judge to order wolf killing. The judge rejected that request, but the state's action pushed Fish and Wildlife to cooperate at the highest level. "Suffice to say, the rank and file are not in lockstep with this," one Fish and Wildlife biologist said.
Eric Meade, a USFWS contracting officer in Anchorage, could provide little insight on how exactly Allen ended up doing the environmental analysis. Meade referred questions to the contracting officer who wrote the contract. She was out of state. "There could be any number of reasons" the EA was done by contract, Meade added. He noted that GAP Solutions is an established USFWS contractor with an Alaska Native corporation 8A preference. Because of that, Fish and Wildlife didn't have to take the time to go through the competitive bid process. GAP, he said, got the Unimak contract back in May. It was about that time the state was in court.
Willis said the work was funneled through GAP to Allen because Fish and Wildlife staff said they would need at least a year to complete a valid and thorough EA. Several agency biologists speaking off the record basically confirmed that.
The EA that emerged from Allen is odd in that offers no "preferred alternative" for federal action as is usually the case with such documents. This 102-page document instead suggests a "proposed action," adding that Fish and Wildlife has "determined that the ADF&G's (Alaska Department of Fish and Game's) proposal to conduct predator control management on the refuge is necessary, but has elected not to identify a preferred alternative pending public review of the EA." The EA calls the use of helicopters to hunt wolves in a federally protected wilderness area "necessary" to "improve the chances that the UCH (Unimak Caribou Herd) will persist as a viable population able to support historic subsistence uses in the manner consistent with the conditions on Unimak Island at the time of wilderness designation."
Will killing wolves actually help?
Noblin called that declaration "unprecedented" in any wilderness area in the country.
Willis, a past critic of Unimak wolf hunts, wondered whether the whole EA wasn't just set up as some sort of a ploy by the agency's Washington, D.C. office to attract enough public heat to force the federal agency to complete a full-blown, time-consuming environmental impact statement.
Noblin said her groups records indicate it has now pushed almost 30,000 messages to Fish and Wildlife demanding the agency pick the "no action" alternative. If it doesn't, Willis added, flaws in the document could expose it to an easy legal challenge.
"The analysis is biased," he said. "There are assumptions. There are no real alternatives. Maybe that's what they want. Maybe they want the public to come out and kill this."
The EA does not, for instance, address the issue of caribou predation by Unimak bears, of which there are 300 to 400. Bears have been shown to be efficient killers of caribou calves. The EA also does not address the issues of habitat or weather. Hoffman noted that no one has a good idea of how many caribou Unimak can support on a long term basis, although the state has a goal of 1,000. Willis said that changing weather patterns could also be a significant issue.
"They've been having some wicked ice events in the middle of winter," he said. Icing can make it hard for caribou to get at lichen, a main winter food. Inadequate winter forage hits hardest at bull caribou, weakened from the rigors of fall breeding, and calves, vulnerable because of their smaller size. Willis said it is worth noting both of these categories of caribou are of the greatest concern in the Unimak herd. Ice storms, which some have linked to climate change, are a relatively new phenomenon in far western Alaska. One is now being blamed for a human disaster on St. Lawrence Island. Because of a lack of sea ice around the island this year, a typical winter storm blew up a monstrous spray of sea ice that froze and shorted out the electrical transmission system in Savoonga.
Willis said he was shocked the Unimak EA failed to discuss potential caribou problems such as habitat and climate. The report, he added, concedes that "something other than hunting and predators was the major, driving force" in the herd's initial decline, but then fails to make any attempt to determine what might be responsible or address whether that problem remains. Without that knowledge, he asked, how is anyone to know if a wolf hunt will work?
"They can't just assume that killing predators is going to solve the problem," Willis said. "There's no guarantee."
He also wondered about the cost. The EA does not put a dollar figure on the proposed wolf-kill program. "I've heard it's a million dollar operation," Willis said. That could not be confirmed. The EA does, however, outline a major search-and-destroy operation: "The project team would be composed of four pilots and 2-3 biologists. The crew would be based in Cold Bay, Alaska, for the duration of the 3-week project. The project would begin in late May and conclude by June 20th. Each day, 2-3 fixed-wing aircraft flying at low altitudes would search for caribou calves less than two days of age. Upon locating a calf, the helicopter capture team would land and hand-capture each calf and fit it with a VHF radio collar."
The collared calves would then be tracked by biologists who would try to identify and destroy wolves active in trying to eat calves. "Bear-caused mortalities," the EA notes, "would be recorded and used to determine future predator management and research needs."
Bears, Willis charged, were not suggested for predator control because they are highly valuable to big-game guides who hunt the island. The salmon-fattened bears are some of the biggest in the state, and trophy hunters will pay guides tens of thousands of dollars for the chance to
"So the state avoided that like the plague," Willis said. "The resident bear season there is still limited to one bear every four years. They wouldn't even change that, and that isn't predator control. That is just resident hunters managing predators. But this is like a lot of other options they didn't address."
For instance, he said, the Canadians have found success aiding the Chisana caribou herd by penning cows during the calving season. Willis said that should have been considered as a Unimak alternative. The former biologist stressed that he is not opposed to the state's goal of growing the Unimak caribou herd, but the plan for reaching the goal should make sense. The state says it would like to get the population back up to 1,000 so that some limited subsistence hunting can be allowed. Hunting on the island is now closed, leaving island residents no source of meat other than marine mammals, feral cows on Sanak Island some 40 miles away, or goods freighted in. The largest island in the Aleutians, Unimak is home to less than 50 year-round residents. They all live in the community of False Pass, a struggling fishing village on the island's eastern end, according to the Department of Commerce.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com