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State Looks At Southeast Alaska Wolf Control Programs

By | December 18, 2012

Wolf near the Stikine River, photo courtesy of Rich Lowell, ADF&G

Southeast game managers are working on new wolf control programs for Southeast Alaska. The state’s Board of Game will hear about the plan when it meets in January in Sitka. The Department of Fish and Game is looking at reducing wolves near Petersburg and Ketchikan to help boost deer numbers. Predator control efforts are underway in other parts of the state but these new programs would be the first of their kind in decades for Southeast.

One program would take place in a portion of state game management unit 3, which includes the islands around Petersburg where deer harvests have dropped over the past decade. That includes Petersburg’s home island – Mitkof. Despite a short two-week, one buck hunting season there, Fish and Game area wildlife biologist Rich Lowell said the harvest numbers have not improved.

“For example in 2000 there were an estimated 169 deer taken on Mitkof,” Lowell said. “And in 2009 that fell to an estimated harvest of just 13 deer. So we’re looking at ways we can help get this deer population off the ground and feel that reducing predation on deer is probably the best tool we have in our toolbox right now.”

Across the Wrangell Narrows from Petersburg, on Kupreanof Island’s Lindenberg Penninsula, deer harvests have also dropped precipitously in the past decade. Fish and Game wants the Board of Game to shorten the season on the eastern side of the island, to mirror the season and bag limits for Mitkof. The department blames the deer decline on several factors, including several snowy winters, the loss of habitat through logging, competition from an increasing moose population, and predation by wolves and black bears. Since 2005, the overall harvest for unit three has failed to reach an annual objective of 900 deer set by the Board of Game.

Meanwhile, hunting and trapping numbers for wolves in the area has increased. Lowell said the wolf harvest has averaged around 50 a year but spiked to 97 last year, the highest in at least three decades. “So that’s one of the things that leads us to believe we have pretty high wolf abundance here and that that is a factor in contributing to our low deer numbers and anecdotally, whether you talk to hunters in unit 3 or biologists with state and federal staff that they would suggest that yeah we’re seeing a lot of wolf sign, people are encountering a lot of wolves incidentally, our wolf population clearly looks to be pretty high right now.”

State law on intensive management of wildlife requires the board of game to consider reductions or elimination of hunting seasons, liberalized hunting and trapping seasons for predators and habitat improvement projects before considering predator control. Lowell pointed out that reduced deer hunting seasons are already in place, or in the case of Lindenberg, under consideration by the board. He noted wolf hunting seasons have already been lengthened. And he says much of the land is federally owned national forest, so state-sponsored habitat improvement projects are limited.

“If the aforementioned actions do not or are unlikely to achieve the intensive management population and harvest objectives, the board must consider predator control,” Lowell said. “So that’s kind of where we are now. At the request of the board back in 2010, they asked the department please take a look at actions you might take to increase deer numbers including predator control.”

The department has drafted a feasibility analysis for trapping wolves in the Petersburg area, and Lowell admitted there’s no certainty wolf control will work. “Using traditional trapping methods and season dates can we reduce wolf numbers sufficiently to allow our deer populations to rebuild, or aid in the recovery of those. And so in that sense its going to be somewhat experimental. We’re not sure we can reduce wolf numbers sufficiently within a portion of unit 3 to have an impact on the deer population,” Lowell said.

As proposed, the program would have the state hiring one or two trappers to target wolves along the state-owned tidelands, or the shoreline during the winter, but would not seek to kill all of the wolves in the area. “In the area that we are considering this wolf removal experiment, which would be Mitkof, Woewodski and Lindenberg Peninsula, we estimate that we probably have about 60 wolves in that segment of the population. And so our target would be to remove about 80 percent of those,” he said. “And again it’s unclear whether that would be achievable using traditional trapping methods but that would be our goal. So we’re looking at removing about 50 wolves from this area.”

Lowell will be presenting the feasibility analysis to the board of Game at its January meeting and seeking feedback on whether to continue looking into predator control. There’s no predator control underway currently in Southeast although unit 3 had a state sponsored trapping and poisoning program for killing wolves in the 50s and 60s. The state also had a bounty on wolves in its early years.

Lowell heard support for the idea from the Petersburg Fish and Game advisory committee during a meeting this fall.
Greenpeace and the Center for Biological Diversity in 2011 petitioned for protection of Southeast wolves under the Endangered Species Act, arguing the region’s wolves are at risk of extinction. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined a listing was not warranted for a prior petition during the 1990s. A spokesman with the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska said the latest ESA petition is still under review with that agency in the nation’s capital.

Wolf control programs have been controversial elsewhere in Alaska. “It seems very unscientific to start any predator control program without scientific data,” said Tina Brown of Juneau, president of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance’s organization in the state. She said very little is known about Southeast wolves. “If predator control is to be implemented there has to be an extreme need for it. It has to be done on a scientific basis, in the smallest area possible taking the least amount of wildlife, targeted species possible. That almost never occurs,” Brown said.

A similar program that could eliminate all wolves from Gravina Island near Ketchikan is also under consideration. The next step would be developing an operational plan for trapping, and finally regulatory language that the Board of Game would have to approve. If the board does approve, it could be next winter at the earliest before state sponsored wolf trapping is underway.

The Board of Game will consider changes to Southeast hunting and trapping regulations January 11-15th in Sitka.

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