Alaska is beginning the second winter of an all-out, open-ended, almost-anything-goes campaign to kill thousands of wolves across vast areas of he state. The effort is characterized by deception, bad science, and poor public policy. It also disregards basic ethical standards.
State officials are relying on a questionable provision of the federal Airborne Hunting Act to allow shotgunning of wolves from low, slow-flying airplanes. Citing state law, they are also allowing “land-and-shoot” killing: The pilot makes a quick ski landing near wolves after pursuing them into open terrain, then jumps out of the airplane and shoots the wolves with a semi-automatic carbine as they try to flee through the snow. At least 147 wolves were killed with these aerial methods last winter. Hundreds more are scheduled to be killed this winter and in each of an unspecified number of subsequent winters.
But this is only the formal, above-board phase of control. Each year, so-called sport and subsistence hunters and trappers kill an additional 1,000-2,000 wolves in Alaska, under regulations designed almost solely to maximize the number killed. Hunters and trappers are allowed to kill wolves for about nine months a year in most areas, either without limit or with “limits” of 5-10 wolves or more each. They can kill pups and adults with dependent pups, including during much of the denning season. They can kill them even when the pelts are worthless for any human use. They can chase them down with high-speed snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles. They can use baits to entice them into areas filled with dozens of wire snares hidden in brush, where some die painful deaths quickly but others die for days or longer. They can use airplanes and helicopters to gain access to even the remotest areas and, once there, can coordinate their ground and aerial killing activities via radio communication.
Hunters, trappers, and others can also legally organize to promote wolf killing by paying private bounties, as the Alaska Trappers Association did with a $400 per wolf bounty in the mid-late 1990s to kill half the wolves in the upper Tanana-Fortymile region. The state itself conducts free wolf snaring and trapping clinics to promote more killing, for example as it did a few years ago in native villages along the remote Koyukuk River. The following year, that area’s wolf kill almost tripled, from 50 to 135.
Over the past few years, the policy-making state Board of Game has added and liberalized many of these measures - not only in the 30,000-35,000 square miles thus far designated for direct aerial and land-and-shoot killing, but also across additional tens of thousands of square miles. The Board of Game’s federal counterpart in Alaska, the Federal Subsistence Board, allows much the same on virtually all of the lands that Congress added to the national park and national wildlife refuge systems under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. Within about half of Denali National Park and Preserve, for example, it is legal for “subsistence” hunters to kill 10 wolves each — pups as well as adults - even during late summer and fall when there is no possible subsistence use of a wolf. Trappers have no limit at all.
When all of these largely hidden forms of control are added to the direct aerial and land-and-shoot killing, the truthful control-related total kill comes closer to 1,500-2,000 wolves per year than just the few hundred that are usually identified. Limited resources will restrict the current efforts to stop this killing largely to the formal, airplane-assisted phases. It is still important to identify all of it, however, so the formal control is viewed in proper perspective and proponents understand that their free pass on the rest has expired.
All of these control efforts are aimed at producing more moose and, to a lesser extent, caribou for hunters. And all of them represent bad science, at multiple levels. For most of the areas, especially in Game Management Unit 13 northeast of Anchorage and the middle Kuskokwim River region of Game Management Unit 19 in southwest Alaska, there is only sketchy, anecdotal information on the numbers of moose present despite claims of low populations and poor hunting success. Moose numbers are extremely difficult to estimate in the brushy habitats they use. Without formal censusing procedures, even the most experienced observers, including biologists, can completely misjudge their numbers and trends.
In Game Management Unit 13, the scant census information argues more strongly that moose numbers are too high from a pro-hunting standpoint. In Game Management Unit 20A south of Fairbanks, major de facto wolf control measures remain in place even as state biologists claim there are too many moose and have opened the area to heavier hunting specifically to reduce moose numbers. In the McGrath (upper Kuskokwim River) area of Game Management Unit 19, the state’s estimate of moose numbers is already where the state wanted it to be, and hunter success remains relatively high. But wolf control is proceeding anyway because the locals think they should be able to get most of the moose they want in just a small, easily accessible portion of the area. In Game Management Unit 16 north of Anchorage, there is good census evidence of a moose decline. But stopping moose hunting for a reasonable period could easily be enough to reverse this decline.
In all of these areas and others, biologists continue to ignore a critical lesson supposedly learned decades ago. It is not possible to prevent the heavy hunting that causes long term moose declines in the presence of natural predation without knowing how many moose are present and how many the hunters are killing. In most areas of Alaska, at least one of these key pieces of information is still missing and in many areas both are missing, primarily because the biologists in charge still do not understand the importance of obtaining all of it. Wolves and bears should not again be forced to pay the price for this recurring incompetence, if good census data ever show that more of the alleged moose declines are real.
What continues to drive wolf (and bear) control more than anything is the much discredited notion of “maximum sustained yield.” It is an old cornerstone of wildlife management and the mantra of the field biologists who initiate most control proposals. Simply put, they think it should be possible to keep moose and caribou numbers in each management area at relatively high, stable levels for ongoing high hunter “harvests,” by manipulating natural predation and other variables. They try to smooth out the ups and downs of population change to fulfill this objective.
But nature works in almost the opposite way. Things are organized as systems at multiple interacting scales. Systems and their parts — such as moose and caribou populations and subpopulations — change over time with much variability due to internal behavior (shifts within and between stable states, cycles, compound cycles, chaos) and external influences.
Many scientists now recognize that trying to replace these highly variable natural patterns of change with artificially high, stable conditions to generate high, constant yields causes a system to lose resilience over time. The system becomes less able to absorb unpredictable, uncontrollable major natural and human-caused disruptions and thus more likely to shift unnaturally into long term states with undesirable and unforeseen consequences for almost everyone. In other words, the biologists and others who think they can keep moose and caribou numbers high and stable via predator control and other manipulations are doing some potentially dangerous wishful-thinking, not science.
Ironically, this represents anything but adherence to the sustained-yield management requirement of the Alaska Constitution that wolf control proponents so often cite as support for their cause. True sustainability recognizes the importance of natural system processes. Maximum sustained yield, command-and-control management does not.
Almost as much of a scientific failing is the view of many wildlife biologists that wolves can be killed in large numbers with no biological problem simply because their high reproductive rates and dispersal capabilities enable them to restore their populations quickly. In reality, not all heavily hunted wolf populations have recovered quickly; some haven’t recovered at all. Wolves feature two unusual evolutionary strategies among vertebrates: cooperative breeding and cooperative hunting. These strategies do not operate though populations. They operate primarily through sophisticated interactions and interdependencies within family groups, especially extended families. This kind of social structure can be shredded by even light or moderate killing when key individuals are lost. Its most fundamental adaptations are in stark contrast to the adaptations of species with long evolutionary histories as prey. This alone should be enough to convince any good zoologist that there is no biological rationale for “harvesting” wolves, let alone the massive killing now underway for control purposes.
Poor public policy
Some Alaskans like to brag that we have the most enlightened public process in the country for formulating wildlife policies. In reality, the process is backward and undemocratic. Decisions are made by a citizen Board of Game whose seven members are appointed by the governor for three-year terms that can be renewed. Even though only about 14 percent of Alaskans hold a hunting or trapping license, rarely are any non-hunters or non-trappers appointed. The board seldom gives fair consideration to the values of the majority of Alaskans who don’t hunt, trap, or want predator control. This is especially true for the current board, which is opening the wolf-killing floodgates for moose and caribou hunters as few others have done before.
There are highly qualified scientists in Alaska who disagree with state biologists over predator control and related matters. But state statutes specify that the board does not have to consider any scientific input other than from the Department of Fish and Game, whose biologists usually initiate most predator control proposals and enjoy almost unlimited input throughout each 1-2-week-long board meeting. Independent, dissenting scientists (including me) are allowed only five minutes of testimony.
Wolves feature high intelligence, expressiveness, and unusual emotional depth, characteristics that enable them to maintain their sophisticated, family-based social bonds as cooperative breeders and cooperative hunters. They are not rows of corn to be mowed down willy-nilly because they will grow back. Recognizing this ethical standard would probably do more than anything to signify Alaska’s emergence from its current dark ages of wildlife management.
Gordon Haber, Ph.D., is an independent wildlife scientist who has been studying wolves and wolf-prey systems in Alaska since 1966. Friends of Animals provides the funding for his research.
Editor’s note: Friends of Animals opposes hunting in all its forms.