The state of Alaska uses radio collars to help find and kill wolves. The technique is part of an approved predator control effort aimed at growing the Forty Mile caribou herd in the Upper Yukon-Tanana area, east of Fairbanks, but the technique raises ethical questions.
Independent biologist and wildlife advocate Rick Steiner of Anchorage is a familiar voice when it comes to Alaska wolf issues. He’s long pushed the state to restore a buffer zone to protect Denali National Park wolves, but Steiner has broadened his concern and outreach to include a state predator control program in the eastern interior, where tracking technology is used to locate wolves.
This program, which virtually no one in Alaska knows about, that the state has been doing, to capture and sedate wolves and put GPS colors on them,” Steiner said. “And then use the collar to follow this wolf back to other members of its family group which they then kill.”
The radio collared animals are sometimes called “Judas wolves”, a reference to the biblical story of betrayal, that Steiner considered a misnomer.
“Judas implies this intentional betrayal,” Steiner said. “But these animals certainly are not doing that. The only betrayal here in my mind is our state government and the people of Alaska who want, as a goal, wildlife management.”
Radio collaring has only been used for wolf control in Alaska in the Upper Yukon Tanana area, according to State Director of Wildlife Conservation Bruce Dale. Dale said the approach was begun in 2011 because of the challenge of targeting wolves in the area of state and federal land.
“The control area is designed to improve calf survival for a 40-mile caribou herd,” Dale said. “So in that case, you want to take specific wolves and in other areas, we don’t wanna take wolves. So the radio collars help sort that equation out.”
Dale said an estimated thirty percent of the 179 wolves killed in the Upper Yukon Tanana control area over the last 5 years were taken with the assistance radio collar tracking, a technique which he says allows airborne gunners to hone in on and dispatch wolves more quickly.
“We can go right to them and take them,” Dale said. “And, you know, a goal in reduction is to be as humane as possible.”
Collared wolves are left alive to help track and potentially take out other animals in the event the lone wolf regroups with a new pack in the control area, a practice Steiner finds especially egregious, given the animals documented social structure.
“Many people consider them extraordinary creatures and here it is that sociality and family bond that’s being exploited by the state,” Steiner said. “Wolf elimination and control efforts.”
Steiner says he’s written Governor Bill Walker asking him to end the radio collar tracking practice. Asked why the state hasn’t been more out front with the program, Dale maintainsedthe lack of publicity isn’t intentional.
“It was just not something anybody thought anything of,” Dale said. “There was certainly no effort to keep it quiet. This is commonly done in wolf reduction efforts in lots of places where they need to keep track of the packs.”
A 1992 state aerial wolf control plan that included use of tracking collars, drew a tourism boycott and was called off. The technique is also used in some western lower 48 states and Canadian provinces, where it’s also been effective and drawn critics.