By ANDREW E. KRAMER
Published: January 8, 2013
MOSCOW — Wolf packs are prowling at the edges of villages in the remote Sakha-Yakutia region of Siberia, eating livestock that includes horses and domesticated reindeer.
They are slinking near towns like Verkhoyansk, far above the Arctic Circle, where the mayor told a regional newspaper that he had organized a hunting party to kill as many as possible. “Our hunters killed more than half the pack,” said the mayor, Mikhail Osipov, but that only bought time. “Those that survived are again threatening the horses,” he said, adding that the remaining wolves would also be shot at the first opportunity.
In fact, the wolves have grown so thick in Yakutia that the governor, Yegor Borisov, recently declared a state of emergency, which wildlife experts said was largely symbolic and intended to draw attention to the problem.
Far from worrying about wolf conservation — as is the case, though controversially, in parts of the western United States — the thinly populated region of Yakutia, like much of the rest of rural Russia, grapples with a perennial problem of excessive predation by wolves.
In announcing the state of emergency, the regional government said wolves killed about 16,000 domesticated reindeer last year and 313 horses. The wolf population was about 3,500, the government said, while ideally it should not exceed 500.
Experts say the wolf problem is not so much a matter of overpopulation as a cyclical collapse in the wolves’ primary prey, rabbits. In the remotest areas, the rabbit cycle is typically trailed by a decline in the numbers of wolves as they starve and freeze to death. But in populated areas, packs switch to livestock.
In Russia, a country with many enthusiastic hunters and lots of open space, only the most charismatic of predators — Amur snow tigers, for example — are accorded much protection. Because the wolves are not endangered and would most likely die anyway if not for the meals of livestock, conservationists generally do not object to the hunting.
Hunters cull wolves and bears by the hundreds. Sarah Palin would feel right at home with Russian wolf hunters, who generally hunt on snowmobiles, which can outpace the animals in thick winter snow. (As governor of Alaska, Ms. Palin encouraged aerial hunts, which were also preferred by the Soviet government.) Traps are sometimes used, though poisoning was outlawed in 2005.
Hunting is typically done for a pelt bounty, which in Yakutia this winter is $660 per adult wolf pelt and $50 for the skin of a cub.
Some municipalities provide additional incentives. The city of Verkhoyansk, for example, kicks in an extra $300 for a wolf pelt, and one town has promised a snowmobile to the hunter who stacks up the most pelts, Rossiskaya Gazeta, the Russian state newspaper, reported.
The system of bounties that remained after the end of Soviet-era aerial hunts has proved cheaper on a per head basis, though less effective in reducing overall wolf numbers, according to a summary of a debate in the Yakutia regional legislature published on its Web site. So, every year, more money is set aside for bounties: $560,000 in 2012, compared with $270,000 in 2003.
To encourage hunting, the regional government has also designated a holiday for hunters, on the second Saturday in April.
Despite these efforts, wolves will maintain their primacy in the frosty northern realms, experts say, and are expected to continue to stalk small towns in Siberia.
And the hunters are expected to continue to get a pass from the country’s conservationists. “There are too many wolves in Russia,” said Vladimir G. Krever, the director of the program in biodiversity in Russia with the World Wildlife Fund.