Aerial wolf hunting is back in Unit 13, but will it increase moose populations?

Last month aerial wolf hunting began in Unit 13. It has been several years since aerial hunters have been allowed in the Unit 13 Intensive Management Area.

The historic wolf population in Unit 13, while truly unknown, has been estimated in the 350-550 range. In recent years, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has been able to do population surveys and provide estimates that are a bit more reliable than those of the past.

However, one needs to remember that although Unit 13 has boundaries, the wolves do not. Obviously real populations are difficult to accurately pin down.

Wolf population numbers are the trigger when instituting a predator management program. For those not familiar with Unit 13 Intensive Management, at the risk of over-simplifying, here it is in a nutshell:

The ADF&G is charged, by the Board of Game and the Alaska Legislature, to manage moose numbers in Unit 13 at the optimum harvest level for the hunting public.

The goal is a spring wolf population of 135 to 165. Fall numbers are tough to count, given funding issues and varying levels of snow cover; thus the wolf population is mostly an extrapolation of the spring counts.

The aerial wolf hunt, or as Fish and Game terms it, “Permitted Management Activity,” occurs when the wolf numbers go above the acceptable level of 165. The spring of 2018 had wolf numbers within the unit at 250. The fall/winter estimate was 400. This is likely a reasonably accurate assessment.

The devil, though, is in the details.

The Intensive Management program includes sub-units 13 A, B, C and E. The wolf population estimate also includes Unit 13D where there are about 75 wolves. Simple math tells us the control program is only going to leave 90 wolves in Unit 13, when excepting the 75 in 13D.

That isn’t many wolves given the size of the remainder of the unit. There have been 100 wolves taken so far, with 135 to go.

As previously mentioned, the objective of this IM program is to increase moose numbers. Increasing moose to potentially shoot for the table at the expense of the ecosystem is never a good idea, nor should it be part of any decent management plan. A book could be written on the thus-far unforeseen effects the management plan has had on this Southcentral hunt area.

Rather than try to write that book, here are a few thoughts to ponder.

The optimum moose population within the control areas was presented as the maximum estimated number the habitat could support. Moose don’t always stay in the best habitat. The highest average annual yields are generated where the ungulate population is an estimated 30 to 40 percent below what the habitat can support. (William Collins 2001; Gordon Haber 2006). Whether one believes the results of these studies or not, it is difficult to dismiss the logic of allowing the habitat to absorb surprises -- such as a bad winter.

One needs only to take a look at the Nelchina caribou herd. In 2017 there was a record numbers of animals and everyone was praising the predator control program. In 2018 there was minimal hunting and hunters wondered where the caribou went.

The moose population may be headed downhill also.

After years of wolf and bear management, the IM program was shut down when wolf numbers hit its lowest spring estimate of 84 in 2014. Three short years later we have fewer moose. It may be wolves. It may be bears.

The bottom line is this: we don't know. And we have had no luck whatsoever at controlling moose abundance. We can shoot wolves. We can kill bears. Can we get more moose? No. The moose harvest did increase for a couple of years before declining last year. Anyone who lives in Unit 13 can tell you that the number of hunters also increased dramatically during those years.

Our game management units do not coincide with ecological units. What happens within Game Management Unit 13 cannot be viewed on a single scale. Natural systems operate on interacting levels. One cannot replace normal patterns with artificial and constant high yields that will invariably diminish a system’s resilience.

Instead of letting the upper limit of sustained yield be our driving force, we should switch to maximizing the ability of the entire system to absorb change.

Let our biologists be biologists. That’s why they were hired. We should not handcuff them with politically motivated artificial goals for the sake of what hunters “want.” In the end, not only in the long-term but right now, that will rise up to bite us.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.

John Schandelmeier

Outdoor opinion columnist John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.