A new study found killing thousands of wolves and bears did not make for better moose hunting in a popular Southcentral game unit over nearly four decades.
The study, by retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game and University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers, focused on an area between Denali National Park and the Copper River that attracts hunters from Anchorage, Mat-Su and Fairbanks.
The study’s authors say their findings raise questions about the state’s longtime practice of culling wolves and bears to increase deer, moose or caribou numbers for hunters.
Between 2008 and 2020, 1,385 wolves were killed in the game unit by various means including predator control, according to state data. More than 3,500 brown and black bears were reported killed in that time period, according to estimates in a chart in the study based on state data.
State wildlife officials, however, don’t plan to halt predator control programs — which aren’t active in the area now — and say moose numbers rose when predator control occurred on wolves over a shorter time.
The researchers who authored the new study say about three years ago, they set out with the hypothesis that killing predators improved moose hunts in Game Management Unit 13 between 1973 and 2020.
They found the opposite.
“Regardless of how we sorted the available data we were unable to detect a positive relationship between kill numbers of any predator species and subsequent moose harvests,” the study said.
The researchers analyzed a state strategy known as intensive management, written into statute in 1994 and practiced in the Southcentral unit since 2003, that allows for predator control as approved by the Alaska Board of Game in specific instances.
Predator control allows special permits for tactics like shooting wolves from the air, which isn’t allowed during conventional hunting or trapping seasons.
The new study, “Efficacy of Killing Large Carnivores to Enhance Moose Harvests: New Insights from a Long-Term View”, was published this month in the peer-reviewed journal “Diversity” by Sterling Miller, a former longtime Department of Fish and Game research scientist now living in Montana; retired Fish and Game biologist David Person; and Terry Bowyer, emeritus research scientist at the Institute of Arctic Biology.
The study documented no correlation between brown and black bear harvest and subsequent moose hunts and no change in moose harvests when predator control programs were in effect for wolves versus a prior period without them.
Targeting bears and wolves to improve moose, deer or caribou hunting has been the subject of debate in Alaska for decades.
The conflict transcends science to deeply held personal values that inform policy decisions. The hunting public may demand predator control to boost moose in Southcentral or caribou around Nelchina, while other Alaskans or Lower 48 wildlife advocates oppose killing wolves or bears for any reason.
Miller said his retired status gave him the ability to address the politically charged subject of predator control in a way working biologists might not be able to.
“I don’t want to speak for my two co-authors but at least my motivation in part is to be able to say things that I think need to be said that local people are unable to say ... if they happen to agree,” he said in a recent interview.
But state wildlife officials disagree with the scope of some of the findings, saying predator reduction appeared more successful over a shorter time period than the research indicates.
Tom Paragi, a longtime Fairbanks-based Department of Fish and Game research scientist, found moose harvest nearly doubled after wolf control started in the unit in 2002, returning to levels before predator control was banned in the early 1990s.
Paragi noted that the new study showed the number of moose in the unit peaked at about 20,000 in 2011 or 2012 and then began to drop even though wolves were not targeted for predator control during part of that time period — though hunting and trapping continued — so fewer were being killed.
He cited a 1992 study that looked at different factors influencing moose that also included disease, nutrition, winter severity and found predation was a “major factor” when predators remain at naturally occurring levels.
Top state wildlife officials say that, while they are reviewing the new findings, they are not halting predator control despite requests from some in the conservation community.
Wolf advocate and marine conservation biologist Rick Steiner in early November asked the state to conduct an independent assessment of Alaska’s intensive management strategy by the National Academy of Sciences, which produced a sweeping 1997 study for the Knowles Administration.
Steiner in an interview called the study “the kind of slam dunk that shows this mythology of predator control is just that: a myth.”
Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang, asked about the status of Steiner’s request, said he is not going to suspend intensive management programs, which are required by statute.
“There are two sides of any issue, including intensive management. As literature such as this comes out, we review and consider it,” Vincent-Lang wrote in an email. “In this case, my staff is reviewing the article and will report their conclusions to me. Based on their preliminary assessment they see some flaws with the study and analyses.”