Firing back, Alaska game managers accuse feds of ignoring research on predator control

The director of the state Division of Wildlife Conservation is pushing back on National Park Service proposed rules to restrict hunting of coyotes, wolves and bears in about 20 million acres of preserves, arguing that federal officials are treating Alaska differently from states to the south.

For inexplicable reasons, "the NPS allows year-round coyote seasons in the Lower 48 but has determined that they are unethical in Alaska," according to Director Doug Vincent-Lang.

"The new permanent regulations appear founded in a desire by the NPS to adopt regulations based on undefined ethical and natural diversity objectives," Vincent-Lang said. "Unfortunately, repeated requests by the state for the NPS to provide measurable metrics to define these new objectives have gone unanswered.''

The state and the park service have been at odds for years over the issue of what constitutes "fair'' hunting. Though federal officials have been careful to couch proposed federal restrictions in terms of an effort to codify "long-standing prohibitions for wildlife harvest seasons and methods that were traditionally illegal under state law," as new Alaska regional director Bert Frost put it in a Thursday press release, the reality appears to be they just don't like the looks of hunters shooting sow bears and cubs, or using lights to hunt bears, wolves and coyotes.

Hunting in this way is part of "an effort to drive down predator populations and boost game species,'' Frost said in the same press release.

And the state of Alaska has for years been involved in manipulating predator species to boost prey as part of its "intensive management'' program.

What 'balance of nature'?

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has at the same time led research that has forced new thinking on the idea that there exists some sort of "balance of nature'' in which predators and prey live in harmony.

As a group of Alaska scientists argued in a paper presented to the Ecological Society of America in Sacramento last month, there is now strong evidence in Alaska that when prey populations drop -- for whatever reason -- predators can hold them at low levels for a long time.

Laura Prugh, a researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Arctic Biology, reported a case study of an Interior area where prey populations had long been small before wolf numbers were temporarily reduced by more than half across a broad area south of Fairbanks -- and then kept low for seven years.

Over that time, the moose population increased by two-and-a-half times, she reported in cooperation with nine Fish and Game biologists, "and the Delta caribou herd increased from 2,200 to 7,335 individuals."

Wolves were then allowed to increase to near pre-control numbers, but "moose density continued to increase during and after wolf recovery, reaching a peak of 1.36 moose per square kilometer in 2003.''

For 28 years, she said, wolf numbers remained almost the same as in pre-control days while moose kept increasing. The moose population was by then more than seven times greater than before the wolf-control program, but had begun to show "clear signs of approaching a nutritional carrying capacity,'' the study said.

Prugh credited "a combination of low bear predation rates, more than 14 years of mild winters, and adequate habitat, including improvements via wildfires'' for allowing moose to continue increasing in number even after wolf numbers rebounded.

Cases like this, state officials argue, support the argument for manipulating predator numbers in the interest of efficient, long-term ecosystem management. If such manipulation can be done through changes in normal hunting seasons and harvest methods -- rather than through predator control -- all the better, Vincent-Lang and the state Board of Game have argued.

Treating preserves like parks

Vincent-Lang argues this is not predator control, a hot-button issue, especially in parks. The park service's constituency isn't keen on any hunting in the parks or adjacent preserves in the 49th state, which were created as part of compromise to allow passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980. Alaska interests held out for the preserve designation for areas historically used by hunters.

The state argues the park service now wants to treat the preserves like parks.

"The NPS incorrectly insinuates that their actions are necessary to address 'historically illegal predator hunting practices in Alaska's national preserves,' '' Vincent-Lang said. "As stated repeatedly in written and oral comments to the NPS, the preempted state regulations are not founded or based on predation control. Rather they are based on public proposals to provide additional harvest opportunities where surpluses exist. The state regulations do not jeopardize sustained yield principles. The insinuation that the action is necessary to correct illegal practices is simply unfounded and unjust.

"What is even more perplexing is that where they allow year round coyote seasons in the Lower 48, they also allow use of artificial light -- yet in Alaska they are banning use of artificial light for bears. Again, where is the ethical line? It is all quite perplexing."

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com