By Jenny Neyman
Starting as early as March of this year, wolves on the Kenai Peninsula will be subject to extermination from above, as the Alaska Board of Game on Monday voted unanimously to approve predator control measures authorizing the aerial killing of wolves in Game Management Units 15A and 15C.
The measures are presented to help boost declining numbers, low bull-to-cow ratios and calf survivability rates in a moose population that has seen better days.
“To me, this is a very clear-cut case. We can either sit, wait and hope, or we can be proactive and try to do something for our moose population,” said Ted Spraker, vice chair of the Board of Game and a retired Kenai-area wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
On Monday, Gino Del Frate, Fish and Game management coordinator for Region 2, gave a presentation to the board outlining the proposals and the department’s reasons for recommending their passage — a change in position for Fish and Game, which didn’t used to support aerial wolf control on the peninsula.
Evidence of a struggling moose population has been predicted and noted for decades, particularly in 15A where the population is estimated at about half what it was 30 years ago. The board enacted intensive management plans for both 15A and 15C in 2000. Since then, 15A hasn’t once met the population target, and only one year met the harvest target.
The main problem in 15A has been identified as a lack of quality habitat for moose. Nutritious moose browse is most effectively produced by fire, and 15A hasn’t seen a big wildfire in 40 years. The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, which covers about 80 percent of the land in 15A, hasn’t conducted any large-scale controlled burns. Doing so is challenging, what with oil and gas development, a busy airspace, expanding human development and a lack of a defensible firebreak between civilization and wilderness.
To add another wrinkle, the refuge has said it does not support aerial wolf control and will not allow it on the refuge, leaving Fish and Game only a small chunk of state- and privately owned land in 15A to possibly conduct an aerial wolf-control program on, if private landowners give their approval now that the board has.
With the limitation of available land on which to conduct aerial wolf kills, and
the evidence that poor habitat is the biggest hindrance to a robust moose population in 15A, Fish and Game has been reluctant to pursue wolf predator control in the past. But declining moose harvest numbers has prompted the department to proceed, with the idea that killing wolves will free up moose for human hunters.
“In the past we have elected not to go ahead with an intensive management program up until about four years ago, and four years ago we started saying, ‘Well, let’s put it on the books, let’s talk about habitat, let’s talk about intensive management. That’s kind of where we are today. Successful wolf control alone is not going to increase the moose populations to objective levels. There’s going to need to be some habitat enhancement, and we are hopeful that that will happen,” Del Frate said. “However, wolf removal may allow for the reallocation of some moose to harvest by humans.”
In the three days of public comment preceding Monday’s deliberations, speakers argued against aerial wolf control, using much the same information pointed out in Fish and Game’s own feasibility reports on the proposed programs — that habitat, not wolves, is the primary problem of the peninsula moose population, and that killing wolves, especially in the limited area available to aerial shooting, wasn’t going to solve what most ails the moose population.
Board members didn’t disagree, exactly, but came to a different conclusion — that addressing predation is doing something, which is better than nothing.
“There are certainly habitat issues and predation issues happening simultaneously. There’s only one of them that we can really deal with through this board. However, our measure of success would be limited by our ability to access land, but I think we have responsibility to do what we can, where we can,” said board member Nate Turner.
Predation may not be the biggest hurdle facing the Kenai’s moose population, but it is a contributing factor that should be addressed, Spraker said.
“You have this combination. You have a couple really bad winters, you have a population that’s declining because of habitat quality, you have restricted trapping (on the refuge), and then when you have these really bad winters, I think that was the final straw. Around 2000, 2001 the population was low enough where the predator impact really became important. And that’s what helped this population go down, and that’s why calf survival and so forth was poor during those years,” Spraker said.
“We have very little land that’s state land or private land that we could possibly impact the number of wolves (though aerial wolf kills), but I think it’s well worth the try because if we’re able to adopt a plan that removes at least some of the impact that’s caused by wolves on our moose population, I think what it will do is buy us some time. That’s what’s important at this stage of the game — we need to buy ourselves some time and not let this moose population decline any further,” he said.
Spraker referenced research done in the early 1980s to assess moose calf mortality. Of the 46 percent calf mortality noted in the study, 34 percent was attributed to black bears, 6 percent to brown bears, 6 percent to wolves and 2 percent to undetermined predation. And that was within the first six or so weeks of the calves’ lives. Spraker said that, to his knowledge, wolves kill a more significant amount of calves in the winter, while bears are denned up, and can kill older moose and occasionally prime adults, as well.
The board already increased the harvest limit of black bears from two to three. Fish and Game regularly hears assessments from peninsula residents and hunters that the brown bear population has increased, but until the results of a brown bear census conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are released, expected later this year, it is difficult for Fish and Game to substantially increase the allowable hunt of brown bears. The board also enacted moose hunting restrictions in 2011 to boost bull-to-cow ratios, which had a dramatic effect of reducing the peninsula’s moose hunting harvest from recent years’ average of 400 a year to 35.
Short of habitat enhancement, which is largely up to federal refuge managers, since the state owns little land with potential for a controlled burn in 15A, wolf control is the only cog left to tweak in the moose population puzzle, according to Spraker.
“This board has absolutely no choice. We have a clear mandate that when we reduce the (hunting) season — and we have reduced the season until we practically closed the moose season — we have to make some sort of effort to correct things or at least authorize the department to try to correct things,” he said. “I’m very hopeful that the refuge will do habitat enhancement, but we haven’t seen it for 40 years. … When it comes to that option of just waiting until the habitat improves, which is the long-term fix, it’s really not an option for this board at all. We have no choice in that matter.”
Fish and Game commissioned a study on the peninsula’s wolf population in November. It estimated 60 to 62 wolves in eight packs in 15A and 44 to 52 wolves in six packs in 15C. Hunting and trapping is currently allowed on both state-managed land and the refuge, which covers about 30 percent of 15C, compared to 80 percent of 15A, and has averaged a harvest of about 40 wolves a year peninsulawide in recent years.
Wolf harvest used to be higher, but several factors have lessened trapper interest, including an outbreak of a wolf lice infestation in the 1980s, and the enactment of regulations on the refuge that make trapping more difficult than on state land — including that traps must be checked every four days and be set at least a mile away from roads.
While the aerial kill program is not expected to result in a huge impact to the wolf population — and the proposals include population thresholds that say the program will be curtailed if wolf numbers get too low — board members said they expect it to be successful enough to be worth doing.
Even in 15A, where only two packs were tracked as being outside the refuge boundary —thus available for aerial hunting — Spraker said he still thinks it will be a boon for moose.
“Removal of at least these two packs will be huge as far as benefiting the moose population because that’s part of the old 1969 burn. That’s where the majority of the moose are distributed across 15A, so although the department’s efforts may not seem like a lot … the department will have an opportunity to make the most impact by removing wolves in the most-dense area of moose,” he said.
In this case, what benefits moose will benefit hunters, since Fish and Game doesn’t want to dramatically grow the moose population without habitat enhancement, since moose in areas of 15A are already showing signs of nutritional stress, and moose in the intensive management area of 15C are already at a fairly robust, 2.5-moose-per-square-mile estimated density. Increasing the population without increasing available browse could just further exacerbate nutritional problems.
So Fish and Game is proposing to monitor the progress of the wolf kill program, and if extra moose result from fewer wolves, Del Frate said the department intends to pursue more hunting opportunities. Since a concurrent goal is to increase bull-to-cow ratios, increased hunting opportunities may initially be for cow moose, rather than bulls, as the bull harvest was already restricted in 2011.
“We’re operating under the premise that we’re really going to do no harm to the moose population. We want to be able to see that there is a detectible difference to the calf-cow ratios, that we’re seeing some response from our intensive management program,” Del Frate said. “… We’re trying to make it very clear that we don’t want the moose population to grow outside of its habitat, and the initial intent of this program is to reallocate those animals from wolves to harvest directly, and that may include antlerless harvests (in permit hunts).”
That may be good news to peninsula hunters, many of whom didn’t even attempt to moose hunt on the peninsula this year. Ultimately, that’s for whom these predator control measures are meant, Turner said.
“I know there’s been a lot of discussion around the state and especially the Anchorage area about whether we should be doing it, considering other factors, and we have considered them. We listened. We’ve had a lot of public testimony and, personally, when it comes to the rubber meets the road, it’s the local people that are immediately affected that I really feel the need to pay special attention to in this situation,” Turner said.
“I think we’ve put it very clear on the record that we don’t believe that we’re going to solve the problem all the way across the Kenai refuge by doing this. We’re making the attempt to fix what we believe based on the data that we have that we can affect the areas that are within our reach. And I think we’ll be affective in those areas. I have little doubt of that,” he said.
Southern area looking up
In the southern Kenai Peninsula’s Game Management Unit 15C, moose numbers have fared better than in 15A. The most-recent population estimate pegged the moose population there at about 2,900 animals, at a density of about 2.5 moose per square mile, which is within the area’s intensive management objective.
Habitat in 15C is in better shape, considering that more than 170,000 acres have burned in wildfires in 15C in recent decades. Of more concern to Fish and Game than moose numbers in 15C is calf survivability and declining bull-to-cow ratios in the intensive management area — north of Kachemak Bay, the Fox River Flats and west of the flats.
Similar to 15A, black bears, brown bears and wolves are active predators on moose in 15C, and hunters have had limited success in controlling predator populations in the intensive management area of 15C. The hunting restrictions put in place by the board in 2011 have had a quick impact in boosting the slipping bull-to-cow ratio, though it plunged moose harvest numbers below the range laid out in the intensive management plan for the area.
“We do believe that part of our bull-cow ratio issues is that the previous bull harvest of the last few years has been unsustainable, which has caused the bull-cow ratio to decline. With the new harvest numbers we may or may not be within our harvest objectives for intensive management,” Del Frate said.
The refuge only covers about 30 percent of the land in 15C, leaving open a much larger area to conduct aerial wolf kills. That, coupled with the generally healthier state of moose in 15C than 15A, should mean that a wolf kill program will be more effective, more quickly, than in 15A, Spraker said.
“It is very different from 15A in that I think in a very short period of time, permittees can be very successful given the land status, and I think that 15C can be turned around in a short period of time,” he said.
Spraker noted his intention to suggest stopping the permit hunts for cow moose in 15C when the hunt comes up for re-authorization at a future Board of Game meeting.
“We’ve already adjusted the hunting season for residents, eliminated nonresident hunting for 15A and C. We’ve taken those steps and I think it would be prudent for this board to eliminate the cow hunt in 15C if we adopt aerial shooting of wolves in 15C,” he said.
Del Frate cautioned against doing so, suggesting that the 2012 permits already issued for the 15C antlerless hunt continue, and that the board consider leaving Fish and Game the option to issue more permits in 2013 if it finds that aerial wolf kills do result in extra moose.
“We might need to harvest more antlerless moose in future years because we’re taking away from the wolves,” he said. “… Considering the high moose densities (in 15C), we’re not necessarily interested in increasing the moose population at this time. However, the goal is to reallocate moose from wolves to human harvest.”
Who will shoot?
A significant difference between the aerial wolf kill proposals is who will be allowed to do the shooting. The wording before the board started out the same for the proposals in 15A and 15C, but the final intention is that only Fish and Game personnel conduct aerial wolf kills in 15A, while permits will be given to the public to do work in 15C.
The difference is the land ownership. Since there is so little area outside the refuge that’s available for aerial wolf kills in 15A, the board said it didn’t want the public trying to decipher where those boundaries were.
“I would not like to see this open to the general public for the fear of just the difficulty of individuals knowing where these land boundaries are,” Spraker said, in proposing an amendment to that effect.
In 15C, however, only about 30 percent of the land is covered by the refuge.
“It’s different from 15A that the intent of the board is that the department issue aerial wolf-shooting permits to the public and that the department may get involved if the public is not successful, but the primary operations should be conducted by the public,” Spraker said.
Spraker requested that both programs be expedited in processing to get started as early as March 1, while snowcover lasts, with 15C being the priority to get started first.
The proposals in both 15A and 15C are written to last five years, but with required re-evaluation after three years to suspend or curtail the wolf kills if certain factors are met — such as the wolf population getting down to 15 animals, or the moose population showing increased nutritional stress.
“The threshold that we described is if after three consecutive years we could see issues, we’ll either come back to the board or we’ll suspend the program,” Del Frate said. “… What we didn’t want to do is have a knee-jerk reaction to a one-year change in population parameters and be sure that it’s more than just some environmental factor that one year.”
An extensive two-year moose research program is slated to begin in the spring, and will help track the impact of the wolf-kill program, producing information to help Fish and Game evaluate whether it should continue the full five-year duration.
The program will involve collaring, tracking and testing 50 moose in 15A and 50 in 15C, which could result in a wide range of information, including rump fat (which indicates health), moose movements, bull-to-cow and cow-to-calf ratios, age structures, pregnancy and twinning rates, calf numbers and calf mortalities. There isn’t enough money and resources to find out everything Fish and Game would like to know, and Del Frate said that the final details and priorities of the research will be left for the not-yet-hired biologist who will be in charge of the research. Determining predation rates of calf mortalities, for example, likely won’t be feasible. Wolf population numbers will also be estimated during the research period.
“We do want to stop and evaluate whether or not we’re doing any harm to our moose population, so we would plan to suspend (aerial wolf kills) and look at our nutritional indices, and see what our moose population is doing. If it warrants different objects from here on out we’ll come back to the board with new numbers. If we see any signs of nutritional stress we will want to re-evaluate the program to make sure we have a highly productive population of moose. And if (the wolf population falls below 15 in 15A or 15C), we will immediately suspend the program and ensure we have a sustainable wolf population,” Del Frate said.