Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Feds won't enforce Alaska predator control decision targeting wolves

Craig Medred | Jan 17, 2012
Guns blazing, the state Board of Game is charging ahead with plans for aerial wolf hunts on the Kenai Peninsula, but there's a problem. Most of the land the wolves roam is within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, and officials there reiterated Tuesday that they are not going to play along with the state.

"The answer is no. It is not going to be allowed on refuge land," said refuge manager Andy Loranger.
A fundamental difference in wildlife management philosophy divides state and federal government. What state officials calls "intensive management," federal biologists call "aerial wolf control." The two are pretty much the same thing viewed from different directions. The state looks at the Kenai's ecology from the standpoint of a moose, or moose hunter. The refuge looks at the Kenai's ecology from the standpoint of a moose, a wolf, a bear and more.

Killing a bunch of wolves, in the Board of Game's view, might help more Kenai moose survive, which would be fine under state law. Killing a bunch of wolves, in the refuge view, would result in only one thing for sure -- a bunch of dead wolves. And federal law doesn't allow for killing wolves just to kill wolves.

Both entities have the law on their side. State law backs intensive management. Federal law backs multi-species management, which means wolves are due as much consideration as moose. Legally, Loranger said Tuesday, he can't go along with an attack on wolves solely to boost moose numbers. That position could change if the moose were endangered, but they're not.

The moose population is simply depressed. A state intensive management plan conceded the main problem is habitat. Fifty years ago, moose flourished after forest fires scorched tens of thousands of acres on the Peninsula. Willows and aspen -- great moose food -- sprouted after the fires. Those plants disappeared as the landscape transitioned from shrubbery to spruce forest. The forest can't support many moose, only an animal or two per square mile. When the Kenai moose habitat was at its peak, it supported more than 4 moose per acre on what was then known as the Kenai National Moose Range. Today, the same lands in the now forested national refuge, support less than 1.5 moose per acre.

What the Kenai Peninsula really needs for moose to prosper is another big wildfire, but both state and federal officials have been reluctant to let fires burn because of risks to communities, cabins and some gas and oil facilities. In addition, all the smoke might worsen air quality in Anchorage, which sits to the north of the Peninsula across Turnagain Arm.

Unable to set a fire, the state wants to open fire. Fewer wolf mouths to feed should, theoretically, mean more moose survive. Somewhere between 80 and 125 wolves live on the western side of the Peninsula. More than half would have to be killed to make a difference, and the population would have to be held down for years.
The Board approved a five-year program to include hunting, trapping and aerial shooting by both state employees and the public, if the wolves can be found on -- or lured -- to state or private land, where they can be killed.

There have been suggestions that maybe the state could radio-collar packs and follow them until they strayed off refuge lands to make this easier. Loranger said federal officials aren't going along with that idea, either, because it would violate refuge management mandates.

"We have a very wide range of range of mandates," he said. "One of them is … to maintain biological integrity and diversity. It's inconsistent with the state's mandates for intensive management."

Loranger added that he fully understood why the board did what it did. The Board of Game, he said, appears to be trying to do its best to adhere to its interpretation of state law. The refuge, he said, is doing the same thing, only with federal law. "We do work under different mandates," Loranger said.

Some federal officials, however, are wondering what happened after they were led to believe state wildlife biologists had concluded aerial wolf control on the Kenai wouldn't be worth the effort -- or the political fallout.

Apparently, the views of local biologists were over-ridden by their bosses in Juneau, led by disgraced Wildlife Division Director Corey Rossi. Rossi quit his job last week after being charged with 12 counts of illegal hunting. The charges revolve around his own, personal predator-control program. He apparently invited out-of-state hunters north to shoot black bears, another moose predator, and then claimed their kills as his own. State attorneys have charged he broke a whole bunch of laws.