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Should state approve wolf-control measures on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula?

Rick Sinnott

Near the end of the movie "Season of the Witch," a small band of medieval adventurers is surrounded by howling wolves. The monk says, "Wolves." Another character asks, "What'll we do?" Nicolas Cage, playing a knight in tarnished armor, says, "Kill as many as you can."

Welcome to wildlife management as it is currently practiced in Alaska.  Not so different from the way it was practiced in the Middle Ages.

I am not opposed to reducing numbers of wolves to increase numbers of prey animals -- wolf control -- so long as wolves constitute a serious problem and the program is scientifically justified, temporary and cost effective. Wolf control for the sake of killing wolves is none of the above.

This week, in Barrow, the northernmost city in the United States, the Alaska Board of Game was scheduled to consider wolf control proposals for two game management units on the Kenai Peninsula: 15A and 15C.

Why was the board considering wolf control plans for the Kenai Peninsula at a meeting in Barrow?

When the board adopts a predator control plan, it takes 60 days before a program can be implemented. Ted Spraker, a board member from the Kenai Peninsula, was bound and determined to start shooting Kenai wolves this winter. But the board tabled both proposals until their Anchorage meeting, scheduled Jan. 13-18, 2012.

Board members, including Spraker, found serious flaws in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s documentation and expressed concern that a required feasibility plan wasn’t completed before the meeting.

Now most Alaskans wouldn't get a chance until next year to examine the reasons why the department believes wolf control is justified on the Kenai Peninsula. The reasons are not persuasive.

Brief history of Kenai Peninsula wolves, moose

Over the past century, wolf and moose populations have waxed and waned on the Kenai Peninsula, largely due to human influence.  

Trappers and miners, often using poisoned baits, are believed to have eradicated wolves on the Kenai Peninsula in about 1915. Federal predator control agents also widely reduced numbers of wolves in the rest of Alaska in the 1940s and 1950s, which kept wolves from re-colonizing the Kenai until about 1960. I’m proud to say it was the newly established Fish and Game department that argued against using poison and eventually eliminated bounties on wolves, in order to bring the animals back from the edge.

When a Kenai wolf sighting was confirmed in 1962, the department prohibited wolf hunting and trapping on the peninsula until 1974, by which time wolves were once again well established.

Hunters, meanwhile, had experienced decades of enhanced moose hunting opportunity on the Kenai without realizing how unique that opportunity. Few moose were found on the Kenai before the late 1800s because the habitat was primarily mature forest. The Kenai was scorched by two massive wild fires -- in 1947 and 1969 -- and several smaller blazes in the past century. The 1947 fire burned 424 square miles of black spruce north of Skilak Lake. The 1969 fire burned 123 square miles between the 1947 burn and the town of Kenai.

These were just the recent fires. Based on an analysis of tree rings, Andrew De Volder documented many wildfires in the past 300 years. However, wildfires increased in size and intensity after the Kenai came under American influence in the 1800s. Humans started many of the fires. And moose benefited.

The moose population increased a decade or so after each of the fires as mature woodland was replaced by the woody browse preferred by moose.

Caribou, once common on the peninsula, were eradicated by fire-caused changes in habitat and unregulated hunting, particularly commercial hunting, by the early 1900s. Without caribou and Dall sheep as prey, wolves may have temporarily held moose populations in check. But wolf numbers were severely reduced by the early 1900s, and wolves did not become re-established on the Kenai for six decades. By the time wolves were extirpated on the Kenai, moose were already abundant.

That didn’t last long. Too many moose over-browsed their winter food supply, and their numbers declined in the mid-1920s. Moose hunting was prohibited north of the Kenai River in the 1930s, but moose continued to decline. This didn’t change until the 1947 burn, which created an abundant food source that finally allowed moose to recover. The population peaked in the late 1960s, when up to 77 percent of the unit’s moose wintered in the 1947 burn area.

By 1971 the benefit of the 1947 fire was tapering off, and several severe winters drove the moose population on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge down from an estimated 9,000 moose to approximately 3,500 by the mid-1970s. Then came another regeneration of new, young forest triggered by the 1969 fire, and moose numbers spiked again in the early 1980s.

Since then, the population has been headed into another decline. Currently, unit 15A supports about 1.3 moose per square mile, which is about average for Alaska.

See a pattern here? Board member Spraker does -- or did, because he was one of the authors of the scientific article from which I took most of this information. From the early 1900s to the mid-1970s very few wolves inhabited the Kenai Peninsula, yet moose populations veered wildly. The independent National Research Council, which reviewed and summarized decades of research on wolves and their prey in Alaska, concluded that, on the Kenai Peninsula, “the highest numbers of moose in winter occurred in areas that had been burned 10-25 years previously, regardless of the extent of reduction of wolves.”

It seems obvious that while wolves have some impact on moose populations, habitat is the key to maintaining large numbers of moose on the Kenai. So why are we talking about killing wolves?

Intensive management means predator control

After what Spraker termed an "enlightened" approach in the 1980s, wildlife management in Alaska was hijacked by several groups of unhappy hunters, including Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife and the Alaska Outdoor Council, an umbrella organization representing hunting, fishing, shooting, and several other outdoors groups. These politically powerful organizations latched onto a concept called "managing for abundance," a relatively new manifestation of an ancient idea -- killing wild predators to increase the availability of game for humans.

The Alaska Legislature swallowed the concept and enacted an “intensive management” statute in 1994, requiring Fish and Game to initiate an intensive management program whenever a population of moose, caribou or deer falls below what it was in the late 1980s and early 1990s, resulting in a significant reduction in human harvest. Intensive management must be implemented in lieu of restricting harvest by traditional methods such as adjusting hunting seasons, bag limits, open or closed areas, or other methods.

Wildlife management in Alaska is frozen in time by the intensive management law, because population and harvest objectives for moose, caribou and deer were established more than two decades ago, when habitats were different, and because human consumption was officially elevated to the highest use of a wildlife species.

When the intensive management law is triggered, Fish and Game and the Board of Game are supposed to consider improving habitat as well as predator control. But altering habitat by clear-cutting and scarifying the soil is often more expensive than predator control, and small communities and remote cabin owners are understandably opposed to letting wildfires burn.

Even when a moose-friendly wild fire, like the 1969 Kenai conflagration, gets going the state Department of Natural Resources, which spends millions of dollars to put it out as soon as possible.

As a result, managing for abundance and intensive management might as well be called predator control. That appears to be exactly what its framers intended. And new predator-control plans keep materializing. Wolves have been shot from aircraft in large swaths of Interior Alaska, the Nelchina Basin, and the Susitna lowlands. Black and grizzly bear-control programs using snares have followed suit. Now we come to the Kenai Peninsula.

The problem is habitat, not wolves

Game management unit 15A encompasses the lowlands and foothills of the northwest corner of the Kenai Peninsula. An aerial wolf survey in March 2010 estimated 41-45 wolves, which translates into a fall population of about 55-60 wolves. Wolves are hunted and trapped throughout the unit. The annual harvest in the past decade averaged about 11 wolves per year. Fish and Game is proposing to cull 25-40 wolves from the unit by traditional hunting and trapping, combined with shooting them from aircraft.

Aerial gunning in unit 15A presents a unique problem. About 79 percent of the 1,313-square-mile unit is a federal wildlife refuge. The state and borough lands where aerial wolf control is likely to take place make up less than 3 percent of the unit.

Never mind that, according to the statute, Fish and Game is not required to implement intensive management where it would be unfeasible due to land ownership patterns. The idea of Kenai wolf control persists.

If you think it’s worth the money to attempt to reduce a wolf population by intensive aerial gunning on only 3 percent of their range, here’s another point to consider: wolves really aren’t the problem in unit 15A.

The last moose population estimate, in 2008, found 2,088 moose in the unit. This is 40 percent less than the 1990 estimate and well below the 3,000-to-3,500 moose required to sustain past levels of human consumption. The average annual moose harvest from 2001 to 2010 was 140, significantly less than the harvest objective of 180-350 moose.

Fish and Game’s wildlife managers on the Kenai are convinced that both the population and harvest levels were set unrealistically high in the 1990s, but their professional training and local experience haven’t swayed their director, Corey Rossi, or the political appointees who make up the Alaska Board of Game. An attempt to lower the moose population and harvest objectives to more realistic levels was shot down by the board last March.

The average annual harvest during 1981-1990 was 240 moose. In those days, moose had a huge supply of excellent winter browse resulting from massive wildfires several decades earlier. Now the woody browse has grown out of reach, and only more huge wildfires are likely to rejuvenate the moose population.

Guess what? Most people who live and recreate on the Kenai don’t want huge wildfires. Even many Anchorage residents freak out and start complaining when smoke from relatively small fires on the Kenai Peninsula drifts across Turnagain Arm.

A moose population’s productivity is impaired by poor winter habitat of the type now common on the Kenai. In unit 15A, pregnancy rates are down, calf survival is down, and even many adult moose area starving to death in late winter. The unit doesn’t have any more wolves now than it did during the high moose populations several decades ago. The problem is habitat, not wolves.

If there’s not enough bulls, kill more wolves?

The circumstances in game management unit 15C, in the southwest corner of the Kenai Peninsula, couldn’t be more different.  The proposed wolf-control area includes all lands north of Kachemak Bay, about 1,171 square miles of the peninsula. This portion of the unit has an estimated 40-75 wolves, and the department is proposing to kill at least 50 percent. Fifty percent of 75 is about 38 wolves. Nobody knows how many wolves are really out there. So you can see how easy it would be to -- whoops! -- kill them all.

Unlike in unit 15A, the moose population in unit 15C is robust -- well within the intensive management population objectives. The population increased 40 percent from 1992 to 2010. The average annual harvest from 2001-2010 was 275 moose, which was well within the harvest objective. The question isn’t where’s the beef, it’s where’s the bull.

Moose hunting regulations in unit 15C have resulted in a chronic overharvest of bulls, to the point where too few survive hunting season to impregnate all the abundant cows. 

Wolves aren’t singling out bulls; hunters are.

To increase the number of bulls, the board amended the definition of a legal bull moose on the Kenai Peninsula earlier this year. Because fewer bulls are now legal game, this is expected to reduce the annual harvest in unit 15C by 75-80 percent, dropping it below the harvest objective.

Saving some bulls should help the bull-cow ratio rebound in two years.

The board is allowed to temporarily reduce harvests to conserve the population without triggering the intensive management provisions. But the temporary loss of hunting opportunity worries some people and, once again, some of those people have fingered wolves as scapegoats.

Sending a message to the public

Having acknowledged in their proposals to the Board of Game that the major limiting factor in unit 15A is habitat and the major issue in unit 15C is a low ratio of bulls to cows, Fish and Game fell back on what it believes is an unassailable argument: “any increase in sustainable harvest will benefit Alaska residents.” That is the key to understanding the Legislature's unscientific mandate to manage wildlife intensively.

But it isn’t true.  

First, the increase in sustainable harvest applies, in this instance, only to moose. This benefits moose hunters, but not necessarily moose watchers and certainly not Alaskans who admire wolves and understand the need for predators in natural ecosystems.

Second, the moose harvest wouldn’t be increased solely for residents. The Kenai Peninsula is a popular place for nonresidents to hunt moose. The Alaska Professional Hunter’s Association, with money to be made guiding nonresident hunters, supports wolf control on the Kenai.

Third, if killing wolves results in more moose where the habitat can’t support them, we can expect more moose to die of starvation or starvation-related diseases.

And finally, if subsidizing moose harvests by killing more predators costs Alaska thousands of dollars per moose, only a few moose hunters will benefit, while most Alaskans will pay for their success with lost opportunity to fund other projects.

The board received about 260 written comments, by my count, on proposals scheduled for consideration at the Barrow meeting. These comments ran 29-to-1 in opposition to the Kenai wolf control proposals. Only eight individuals and organizations wrote in favor of wolf control on the Kenai. Only 21 of the comment letters received by the board didn’t focus on the Kenai wolf control issue, remarkable for a meeting whose primary purpose was to consider game management issues in Arctic and Western Alaska.

Obviously, most of the public that cares enough to write opposes aerial gunning of wolves on the Kenai. Two of three Fish and Game Advisory Committees on the Kenai Peninsula also opposed the wolf-control proposals.

This opposition hasn't fazed Fish and Game. Increasingly, proposals and plans from the department aren’t based on science, or even reality, because they have been consigned to the sole discretion of one person, the director of wildlife conservation, Corey Rossi.

Local wildlife managers, those most familiar with the wildlife, habitat conditions, and people in their area, have always presented Fish and Game’s intensive management plan to the board in the past. Now that is done by Rossi -- a political appointee with no degree, no relevant professional qualifications and precious little experience in wildlife management.

Rossi is a founding member of the Alaska chapter of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife. That organization and the Alaska Outdoor Council didn't submit comments on the two wolf control proposals to the Board of Game. They didn’t need to with Rossi in the driver’s seat.

Rossi’s new assistant director, Tony Kavalok, let the media have a rare peek under the circus tent last month. In an interview he admitted that the primary impetus for wolf control on the Kenai Peninsula was public pressure, not science. Sharing his boss’s tone-deaf rendering of public opinion, he said killing Kenai’s wolves “sends a message to the public that we are serious about turning this around and we will do something."

Both Rossi and Spraker believe they are responding to a public need. But it’s not the public that is pressing for wolf control. It’s a few influential hunters. Wolf control on the Kenai Peninsula is not supported by science, common sense, or by most Alaskans.

Former state wildlife biologist Rick Sinnott retired in 2010 after nearly 30 years with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He was known during his time with the state for his outspokenness on wildlife issues -- particularly the way Anchorage residents interact with urban wildlife. Contact Rick Sinnott at rick(at)alaskadispatch.com