The state of Alaska is killing wolves that den inside Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. And it's perfectly legal.
By Scott Kirkwood
Deep in the heart of eastern Alaska there is a line on a map that determines where a wolf is a treasured part of the natural landscape and where it is considered a nuisance. If wolves could read maps, this would be a meaningful distinction. Because that’s not the case, hundreds of wolves are being killed. Clashes between the state’s independent streak and the federal government’s policies are nothing new in Alaska, but in Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, a keystone species is being decimated as a result.
The problem is pretty simple: Alaska’s department of fish and game manages wildlife for “abundance” of game animals like caribou and moose. National preserves also allow hunting, but they manage for “healthy populations of wildlife,” including wolves. The state believes that more predators equates to fewer game animals, hence the conflict.
“The 40-Mile caribou herd is in one of the most accessible hunting areas in the state,” says Wade Willis, a wildlife biologist who once worked for the Alaska Department of Fish & Game and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. “With a well developed commercial guiding industry and access to roads so close to Fairbanks—the second largest urban center in Alaska—its hunting grounds are within reach of a high percentage of the state’s population, so there’s political pressure to allow excessive hunting.”
The 40-Mile herd dipped from at least 100,000 to 10,000 in the 1990s, due to hunting and natural fluctuations, but also because global warming and increased wildfires degraded habitat in the region. Caribou numbers rebounded in the late 1990s and surpassed 40,000 in 2002, where they seemed to level off. But apparently that wasn’t good enough. In 2003, the state began chemically sterilizing wolves using darts, and two years later the Alaska board of game established a predator-control zone in the upper Yukon-Tanana uplands. That move allows citizens with permits to shoot wolves from airplanes, a method that simply isn’t allowed in the hunting of other species. In 2006, the predator-control zone was expanded to its current size of 18,750 square miles (more than twice the size of New Jersey), a designation which runs along nearly 70 percent of the preserve’s border. As a result, aerial gunners have killed more than 250 wolves on land adjacent to the preserve between 2004 and 2009.
Recent evidence has illustrated the impact on preserve animals may be even worse than park biologists had suspected. Wolves fitted with newer collars using global-positioning satellites (GPS), have revealed much more data than the typical radio collars in use for decades. “Wolves that have an affinity for the preserve—whose home territory is within our boundaries—are more vulnerable to predator-control efforts than we had once thought—they move even farther and more frequently than we knew,” says Greg Dudgeon, superintendent of Yukon-Charley.
The results often go beyond simple facts and figures: In November 2005, 14 wolves from the Cottonwood pack wandered 125 miles from the park’s border into the predator-control zone, and six of them were shot and killed by licensed hunters in airplanes. Two of the animals were wearing radio collars as part of a 12-year study being conducted by the Park Service. As a result, one of the preserve’s longest-running research projects came to an end.
Last year the state took it one more step, paying its own fish and game staff to shoot wolves from helicopters. In March 2009, the state set its sights on land adjacent to the preserve. In just one week, 84 wolves were dead, and the total harvest for the season exceeded 200; the state was forced to suspended its activities, because hunters couldn’t find any more wolves to kill.
The Park Service has suggested establishing a buffer zone around the preserve to protect the wolves that den inside Yukon Charley, but the border is adjacent to a caribou calving area, where the next generation of game is being reared. In the state’s eyes, allowing wolves to have free rein of the area would defeat the whole purpose.
There may be some hope, though. In its last hunt, the state agreed to use the Park Service’s radio-telemetry equipment to make sure they weren’t killing collared wolves that had wandered from the preserve, revealing some willingness to protect animals related to the preserve’s research efforts. If the state were to extend that condition indefinitely, and advise citizens not to shoot any wolves found in a pack with collared wolves, it might be enough to safeguard wolves who wander too far afield.
“It would be great if the state of Alaska would stop shooting wolves from helicopters and planes, but that’s not up to the federal government—it’s something Alaskans have to decide,” says Jim Stratton, senior director of NPCA’s Alaska office. “Whether you like it or not, the state manages for abundance of moose and caribou. But our contention is you simply can’t apply that philosophy on lands managed by the National Park Service. Congress set aside Yukon-Charley to protect wildlife, and specifically wolves. But as soon as these animals leave some arbitrary government boundary, they’re fair game—and that’s just not right. There’s got to be some way we can protect these wolves when they decide they want to look for food a few miles down the road.”