Monday, March 30, 2015

Does Alaska want more #wolves? Well, do the math.


Pete Buist

Denali NPS Twitter feed
Recently the Alaska Board of Game voted to turn down an emergency petition that would have closed many acres of state and private land outside Denali Park to the taking of wolves. Denying the petition was inevitable, since the request did not meet the statutory definition of “emergency.” But it is interesting to consider what the real reasons might be for the support for the petition by the anti-hunting/trapping group that submitted it and members of the public who supported it.

No one disputes that the wolf population in Denali Park has plummeted in the last few years. The reason for the low numbers of wolves probably is not clear but one thing is for sure: It is not logical or fair to blame hunting and trapping in or near the “hard park” portions of Denali.
The National Park Service appeared to be neutral regarding the petition. At times, even the petitioners admit that hunting and trapping are not responsible for the low numbers of wolves in the park. Park Service research states clearly that human harvest of wolves is low and infrequent near the boundaries. Ironically, the most robust, viable and healthy wolf packs in the park are at the northeast corner, exactly where the petition sought to restrict harvest on lands adjacent to the park.

Further, Park Service scientists have documented wolf losses appearing to be related to starvation in the northwest part of the park. They believe that this correlates to low prey populations and unfavorable hunting conditions for wolves in recent years. This is very reasonable.

There were many public comments supporting the petition. I read both the petition and the supporting comments, and was struck by a couple things.

First, the general public is abysmally ignorant about wolf biology, wolf behavior and wolf management programs. Virtually all the public support for the petition was from outside of Alaska and based on emotional arguments that have little to do with the real world of wolves in and around Denali Park. Here are some shining examples from the Record Comments submitted to the Board of Game:

“Please protect our wolves in Yellow Stone National park.”

“The wolves will always cross over into the higher dimension frequencies. It is the human that murders and gloats, that will stay in the lower realms after they die.”

“Please save the wolves; they are vital to the echo system …”

“Killing these wolves will result in the catastrophic collapse of our own ecosystem and the subsequent extinction of all living things existing anywhere.”

“Without the wolves to help manage the caribou their population will become overwhelming and they strip the land of vegetation which can lead to mud slides and other problems …”

As for the petitioners, I’m left thinking that this campaign was more a way to raise money than to actually benefit wolves. It was anti-hunting and -trapping, NOT pro-wolf. One has only to observe areas near the park and similarly situated to see this clearly demonstrated.

Denali Park is 6 million acres. According to the Park Service, the number of wolves fell from 143 in 2007 to 50 wolves by 2014.

Just to the east lies Game Management Unit 20A. This smaller area (4.2 million acres) is mostly state land. It is managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. GMU 20A features one of the most productive moose hunting areas in the entire state. It supports 10,000 moose and in the neighborhood of 300 wolves. Humans harvest several hundred moose each fall in the unit and wolves take about another 2,000 moose. As in most of Alaska, the take by predators is far higher than the human take, a fact conveniently ignored by most wolf supporters.

Virtually every biologist, trapper, hunter and bush resident knows that wolf populations reflect the availability of their prey. When prey is abundant, wolves flourish. When prey populations are low, wolf populations become low.

So it’s clear that folks who honestly want to see more wolves should not be wasting their time petitioning to close lands adjacent to the park to harvest. Instead they should be supporting more intensive ADFG management on these lands.

What management regime is more “pro-wolf?” The one that results in 50 wolves on 6 million acres? Or the one that results in a robust 300 wolves on 4.2 million acres that also produces thousands of pounds of moose meat for Alaska families?

Pete Buist of Fairbanks is retired from the Alaska Division of Forestry. He is a past member of the Alaska Board of Game. He holds degrees in biology and forestry from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Syracuse University.