State workers kill wolf in national preserve, triggering federal investigation

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is reviewing its protocol measures after officials conducting predator control northeast of Delta Junction killed a wounded wolf that crossed onto federal land.

The wolf was "humanely dispatched and retrieved" by Fish and Game March 9 after it crossed into the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, the state department said Tuesday. The protocol review will help minimize the chance of similar incidents in the future, it said.

Fish and Game notified the National Park Service about the wolf kill the following day, said John Quinley, Park Service associate regional director of operations.

The wolf was spotted on a ridge near the remote, mountainous upper portion of Goodpaster River, south of the preserve. Fish and Game staff shot the wolf from a helicopter, mortally wounding it, the department said.

"The wolf bolted north, over a ridge and down a steep slope, and had crossed into the preserve boundary by the time it was relocated and put down with a second shot," according to Fish and Game.

Regional supervisor Darren Bruning said the fatal shot occurred a short distance into the preserve.

The incident marked the first time a predator targeted by the state's predator control, or management program, needed to be dispatched in Yukon-Charley.

Bruning said there are state administrative codes which prioritize dispatching wounded animals that cross into adjacent lands from where hunts or control measures take place. He did not know whether the rule applied to federal lands, he said.

"It's important to place proper emphasis and follow up on a mortally wounded animal," Bruning said.

Quinley said hunting and trapping are legal in Yukon-Charley, a park inaccessible by road and home to old Gold Rush cabins and other historical sites.

"The aerial shooting of wolves in the national preserve – and on any National Park Service unit in Alaska – is illegal," Quinley said.

The Park Service said it is investigating the incident.

The killing of wolves in the area is part of a long-standing management program aimed at increasing the Fortymile caribou herd, according to Fish and Game.

The herd numbered as high as 260,000 caribou in the 1920s; it thinned out to fewer than 8,000 caribou by the mid-1970s. Fish and Game cites studies conducted from 1994 to 2003 indicating wolves account for 47 percent of calf deaths, and studies over a similar period of time showed wolves accounted for 80 percent of the herd's adult deaths.

The Alaska Board of Game approved the predator control program for the Fortymile herd in 2006. The herd has increased 2 to 4 percent each year and is currently estimated at over 50,000 caribou, according to Fish and Game.

That area's program costs $50,000 to $120,000 annually, Bruning said. In 2013, Fish and Game spent $376,000 statewide on predator control, he said.