By Tim Mowry
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Fairbanks, Alaska (Published: May 29, 2005)

Aerial gunners killed less than half the number the Department of Fish and Game had hoped in the second year of its controversial predator reduction program, but the state’s wildlife boss termed the effort a success.

The state issued more than 100 aerial permits to hunters this winter to shoot wolves from airplanes or to land and shoot wolves in five different parts of the state. As of Friday, the reported harvest stood at 276. The total harvest objective was 570 wolves.

“Given the fact it’s a volunteer program, I think it’s working pretty well,” Matt Robus, director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation, said by phone from Juneau.

The fact that hunters took less than half the number of wolves the state was shooting for provided ammunition for critics opposed to the state’s predator reduction efforts, who feel the state is overestimating the wolf populations in the control areas.

“This may be a clear indication the state is inflating the number of wolves in these areas, which we have suspected, based on fact there have been few, if any, surveys,” said Karen Deatherage, Alaska representative for the Defenders of Wildlife, one of a handful of groups that has voiced opposition to the state’s predator control plan.

Priscilla Feral, executive director for the animal-rights group Friends of Animals, which has organized a tourism boycott of Alaska the past two years, put it more bluntly.

“There are far fewer wolves than they thought,” said Feral by phone from her Darien, Conn., office.

This season’s harvest brings to 420 the number of wolves killed as part of the state’s predator control program over the past two years, which is aimed at bolstering moose and caribou herds in certain parts of the state over a five-year period.

Last year, hunters killed 144 wolves in two regions–the Nelchina Basin and McGrath. This year, the state Board of Game adopted programs for three additional areas–Unit 19A in the central Kuskokwim River region near Aniak, Unit 12 and 20E in the Fortymile country near Tok and Unit 16B west of Cook Inlet.

As of Friday, hunters had reported taking 91 wolves in Unit 16B west of Anchorage; 67 wolves in Unit 13 (Nelchina Basin); 61 wolves in Unit 12 and 20E (Tok); 43 wolves in Unit 19A (central Kuskokwim); and 14 wolves in Unit 19D east (McGrath).

Aerial hunters in the Nelchina Basin killed about half–67–the number of wolves they did last year when a harvest of 127 wolves was reported.

State wildlife biologist Bob Tobey in Glennallen said he didn’t expect hunters to take as many wolves this year. Not only did last year’s control efforts reduce the wolf population, it eliminated several litters that would have replenished the population in areas wolves were killed last year.

“Some of those wolves were breeding wolves so we didn’t have the production that we normally have,” said Tobey.

Considering that permits weren’t issued for Unit 12 and 20E until late January, state wildlife biologist Jeff Gross said the harvest of 61 wolves in the Fortymile was “excellent.”

“They were able to reduce wolf populations to the levels outlined everywhere in the area except the portions overrun with caribou,” said Gross, referring to the Nelchina Caribou Herd, which moved into Unit 20E earlier than expected and erased any sign of wolf tracks.

The highest number of wolves–91–were killed in Unit 16B west of Cook Inlet, in large part because of its proximity to Anchorage, said Robus. It’s only a short flight from Alaska’s largest city to Unit 16B.

That’s also probably the reason fewer wolves than expected were taken in Units 19A near Aniak and 19D east around McGrath.

“Those areas are further away and it takes more time and fuel for people to get to them,” he said, noting the high price of gas.

Biologists are still studying what kind of effect the wolf killings will have on moose and caribou populations, but in Unit 13 it appears moose numbers are improving.

“Our moose calf (percentage) was up to 22 (calves per 100 cows) last year,” said Tobey. “That’s the highest we’ve seen in quite a few years.”

It appears twinning rates are up this year, too, which is another indication of a healthy and growing moose population. Preliminary estimates peg this year’s twinning percentage at 38 percent.

“Now the question is how will survival do, because we’re getting the productivity,” said Tobey, adding that he talked to a pilot earlier in the week who watched a grizzly bear stalking a newborn set of moose calves.

Though the wolf control program has ended for the season, critics say they will persist with their opposition in a number of ways.

“We’ll continue to lobby (Gov. Frank Murkowski) in hopes he will hear the voice of democracy, who are the people who voted twice against this,” said Deatherage, referring to the fact Alaskans have twice voted down land-and-shoot wolf hunting. “We will continue to pressure the Interior Defenders of Wildlife will also continue to pressure Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton to enforce the federal airborne hunting act, which the group claims is being violated.

Friends of Animals, meanwhile, will continue the tourism boycott of Alaska it began two years ago, Feral said. The group has held more than 200 “howl-ins” in 40 states and five foreign countries in the past two years to protest predator control in Alaska.

The group will be in Superior Court in Anchorage on June 7 to argue that the wolf control program should be stopped because the state doesn’t have sufficient data to warrant the killing of wolves.

News-Miner staff writer Tim Mowry can be reached at or 459-7587.