The Mythology of the Wolf Control Advocates in Alaska

Vic Van Ballenberghe / Wildlife Biologist / February 5, 2006


I followed the recent events regarding the wolf control issue with great interest.  It all started with a court decision, rendered after many months of deliberation, which declared the state's wolf control regulations to be illegal.  The Board of Game (BOG) quickly held a teleconference to find that an emergency existed.  The BOG then repealed the invalid regulations containing the predator control implementation plans and passed emergency regulations that recast the old plans in a new format.  The emergency findings and regulations were quickly challenged in court.  Before a court hearing could be held the BOG revised the main regulation guiding the process of adopting control programs and deleted from it a public input requirement that was cited in the court challenge.  A few days later at the court hearing attorneys from both sides argued their cases. The judge then ruled that the emergency finding was valid.

I read the judge's first decision as well as the legal briefs and supporting documents filed originally in the case.  I listened to the BOG's teleconference.  I read the emergency finding and the regulations and I attended the court hearing.  I also read the newspaper coverage and listened to the TV news coverage that surrounded all of this.

Having been involved with this issue for more than thirty years as a biologist and a BOG member, I was struck by the sheer volume of misinformation (disinformation?) that accompanied this latest eruption of one of the most volatile and controversial issues in Alaska.  The wolf control advocates formulated an extensive mythology of mistruths, half-truths, and distorted facts to bolster their case.  I'll identify some of the myths they used and comment on them.


Predator control advocates argue that the current programs are based on many years of sound science.  They refer to research in certain areas that in some cases occurred in the 1970s.  It is true that research has found that at times predators may limit moose and caribou populations.  Under some conditions moose and caribou increase after predator reductions.  But advocates misinterpret this to mean that control always works.  They ignore the limiting effects of bad winters, poor habitat and hunting that more often than not outweigh the impact of predation.  And for years, advocates focused entirely on wolves.  Research has shown that in virtually all cases where moose are heavily impacted by predation, bears are at least as important as wolves in limiting moose numbers.

Predator control opponents base their claim of poor science on the current lack of data to justify the control programs rather than the lack of previous research.  For several of the programs current, reliable data on moose, wolf and bear numbers were unavailable.  Instead, crude estimates were used.  Information identifying the extent of bear versus wolf predation was weak or unavailable.  And habitat information demonstrating that moose would increase if predation was reduced was sketchy at best.

The dangers of proceeding despite poor information were illustrated at McGrath where inadequate moose censuses indicated only 850 moose in the year 2000 when about 3,500 were needed to meet local subsistence demands.  A crisis was declared and predator reductions were recommended.  A better census in 2001 indicated about 3,600 moose and the issue quickly faded away.  In some of the other programs no moose censuses were done to justify low moose numbers and no future censuses are planned.

In January 2005 a letter signed by 123 wildlife biologists was sent to the governor requesting that the state return to past standards for science-based predator control. A similar letter from an international organization of professional biologists was sent in July 2005.  To date, these recommendations have been ignored.


In adopting control programs, the BOG provided that wolves would not be reduced below a certain minimum number, generally not less than 20% of the pre-control wolf population.  This sounds great but in reality, pre-control numbers were very crude estimates.  The BOG did not require the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) to survey wolves during control to reliably know to what extent numbers were reduced.  Nor could ADFG determine this even if required as snow necessary for surveys melts soon after control terminates each spring.  And wolf surveys are not required each autumn during control efforts to ensure that more than the minimum numbers of wolves are present before a new winter of shooting begins. Furthermore, harvests of wolves by hunting and trapping in addition to those taken by aerial control are not known until after the seasons close. This increases the chances that the total harvest (wolves taken by control, by hunting, and by trapping) will drive wolf numbers below the specified minimum.


Again, this sounds great.  However, under the intensive management system, predators can be reduced when prey are low, high, or in between.  Prey population and harvest objectives are typically set at high levels.  In some cases they are likely unattainable and probably are unsustainable.  If attained, the BOG is likely to increase them further as there will always be more demand for game than there is supply, and hunters will commonly demand more and more predator control.  The biologists that support predator control tell the BOG that predator control cannot cease or predators will again increase and deplete prey.  The net result is ongoing, never-ending predator control that chases unrealistic objectives and permanently holds predators at very low densities.


Technically, all Alaska residents are subsistence users under state (but not federal) law.  But control advocates have claimed that rural ("bush") residents will mainly benefit from predator control.  The program at McGrath originally determined that up to 150 moose were needed annually by local subsistence users and that a population of up to 3,500 moose could sustain this harvest.  The BOG showed its true intent when it increased these objectives greatly (up to 600 in the harvest and up to 8,000 in the population) claiming that there were many others who wished to hunt there besides local residents.  Many of these non-locals were Anchorage and Fairbanks residents who hunted there in years past.  By most standards they would be considered sport hunters.

In the Nelchina Basin control program, most of the moose and caribou hunting and harvest is by non-local residents, again, many residing in the Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Palmer-Wasilla area.  The Basin has a long history as a sport hunting area going back several decades.

In the Tok area control program, moose hunting by non-Alaska residents is still allowed.  The BOG did not restrict them like it did in other areas as a measure to allocate more of a scarce resource to locals.  Clearly, the BOG wants to control predators to provide more game for urban sport hunters including non-Alaskan trophy hunters.


Predator control advocates claim the battle over predator control is between outside animal rights extremists and Alaska hunters.  Clearly, many people in addition to animal rights advocates outside Alaska view private pilots shooting several hundred wolves in 50,000 square miles of Alaska as wildlife management gone awry.  This was demonstrated when Governor Wally Hickel received about 100,000 letters of protest the last time wolf control issues arose.  But many Alaska residents also oppose the current programs.  Three recent ballot measures, two dealing with aerial hunting and one restricting wildlife initiatives, clearly demonstrated lack of support for controversial wildlife management programs and policies.  In truth, a minority of Alaskans supports predator control programs that are perceived by the majority as poorly justified, extremist attempts to provide more targets for hunters.


In previous predator control programs conducted with ADFG personnel using helicopters, fair chase was not an issue.  But why did we abandon that approach and use private pilots instead?  Private pilots are not paid by the state.  They can keep and sell the wolf hides from wolves they shoot and retrieve.  Why do over 100 private pilots risk dangerous low level flying in remote areas under winter conditions while paying record high prices for aviation fuel?  I doubt if it has much to do with a sense of duty to save moose.  If they venture far from home they cannot break even financially by selling hides.  Many are long-time pilots who hunted wolves with airplanes when land-and-shoot hunting was legal.  They do it because they consider it great sport.  Even if it is done as control to reduce wolf numbers, many people expect that the wolves will be treated humanely.  They certainly do not expect that pilots will shoot wolves outside the control area boundaries as happened at McGrath during the first year of the program.  There are few provisions to ensure that pilots follow the rules.  If no rules of ethics apply to wolf control why don't we just use poison or drop bombs?


At the BOG's emergency teleconference Board members dutifully declared that alternatives to aerial shooting had been tried but failed to reduce wolves, or that alternatives were impractical or were uneconomical.  This was in response to the judge's finding that alternatives had not been tried.

About a decade ago a successful program of wolf translocation and sterilization occurred to benefit the 40-mile caribou herd near Tok.  Alpha pairs in each wolf pack were sterilized and other pack members were moved long distances.  The pairs were able to hold their territories over time despite lack of reproduction.  Wolf predation on caribou was reduced and the caribou herd grew.  While some object to these procedures, they are an alternative to lethal control and they did produce positive results. 

In the same area prior to the sterilization program a diversionary feeding experiment occurred where train-killed moose carcasses were provided in spring to divert predators from killing newborn moose.  There were limited positive results but the program's short duration precluded full evaluation of this technique.

There is much research on moose documenting the positive effects of high quality habitat and good nutrition on increased reproduction and improved survival.  The best method of improving moose habitat in remote areas is with fire, either allowing wildfires to burn or setting prescribed fires.  In recent years vast areas of Alaska have burned but we have not yet evaluated benefits to moose.

Clearly, there are alternatives to lethal wolf control.  Costs may be high and logistics may be difficult but in the end such costs may be an investment in good public policy.  I think it is fair to say that the BOG has thus far mainly given lip service to non-lethal alternatives in their apparent preoccupation with aerial shooting.


Wolf control advocates cite the passage of the first aerial shooting ballot initiative in 1996 as a major event in the battle over wolf control.  They claim that wolves increased after 1996 as land-and-shoot hunters no longer held them in check, and more wolves killed more moose and created serious predation problems. In reality, many areas of Alaska were not suitable for land-and-shoot hunting because heavy timber made wolves difficult to find and even if they were found suitable landing spots were rare.  Some areas, including the Nelchina Basin near Glennallen, were much more open with large rivers and many lakes and wolves were vulnerable to airplanes. In that area wolves increased after 1996.

Statewide wolf population estimates indicated no increase after 1996.  These crude estimates suggested stable wolf numbers from the mid-1980s through the 1990s.  But statewide wolf harvests increased following passage of the 1996 initiative despite the loss of land-and-shoot hunting.  This was due to increased hunting from snowmachines and increased trapping efficiency as trappers took courses in becoming more expert and effective snaring techniques were used.  Also, hunting and trapping seasons and bag limits were greatly liberalized to encourage higher harvests.  The statewide wolf harvest by hunters and trappers has been about 1,500 to 1,700 in recent years, far higher than during the two decades prior to 1996.

In remote, densely forested habitats, aerial shooting likely is required to greatly reduce wolf numbers.  In more accessible, open areas hunters and trappers can keep wolf numbers low.  This has been proven in much of the Nelchina Basin west of the Richardson Highway where snowmachines penetrate a large portion of the area and interest in shooting and trapping wolves is high.  But the BOG insists it needs aerial hunting in this area to accomplish its objectives.


To hear the predator control advocates tell it, game is scarce pretty much all over Alaska.  As mentioned above, estimates of moose near McGrath as recently as 2001 were much below the actual number of moose present as revealed by an adequate aerial census.  Local residents on the ground sometimes severely underestimate moose numbers especially when they are not successful at hunting.

In other places, for example, the Glennallen area, the issue is not critically low moose densities but rather an effort to boost moderate numbers to high numbers.  And there are some areas where moose are too abundant.  Ironically, this is true for the Fairbanks area, the hotbed of wolf control sentiment, where hunters are encouraged to shoot cows and calves to prevent moose from damaging their habitat.

Control advocates often forget to mention abundant caribou in several areas.  The Western Arctic Caribou Herd, one of the largest herds in North America has contained nearly a half million animals since the mid-1980s.  The Porcupine Caribou Herd has been high and stable during the same period.  The Nelchina Herd increased during the 1980s and 1990s to 55,000 by 1996 when the BOG approved a plan to shoot 15,000 caribou in one year to reduce herd size.

Have statewide moose harvests declined during the past decade following passage of the 1996 ballot initiative?  Moose harvests have not declined-hunters in Alaska have taken 6,000 to 8,000 moose annually since the 1970s.

Yes, there are areas in Alaska where moose declined just as there are other areas where moose increased.  Wildlife biologists have studied moose for decades all across northern North America in areas with wolves and bears and in areas lacking predators.  Declines of moose have been studied in detail including some classic examples in Alaska.  Some declines were due to predation while others were due to deep snow winters (when many moose starved), habitat changes, and over-hunting.  Following mild winters from 1975 to 1988 in Alaska we experienced several very severe winters in the 1990s.  Some had record snow depths with penetrating cold and many moose died.  To claim that predation caused all the problems we have now with too few moose, or that reducing predators will cure those problems, is contrary to several decades of scientific research and the judgment of competent moose biologists worldwide.


ADFG biologists have consistently told the BOG that habitat is sufficient to support more moose in the predator control areas.  This is mainly opinion as ADFG has done little or no fieldwork other than crude browse surveys to assess habitat conditions.  For low density moose populations habitat likely is adequate for more moose but the key questions are how many more moose and for how long?

After the federal predator poisoning programs of the 1950s moose in several areas of Alaska erupted to high density, damaged their habitat, and declined.  Will the current programs repeat this pattern?  Following wolf control in the 1970s and 1980s, the area near Fairbanks now supports too many moose for the available food supply and moose are in danger of crashing.  Competent moose biologists warn against managing moose for boom and bust cycles yet that is the pattern that wolf control may produce.  Predator control advocates fail to see the problems of too many moose.  These include motor vehicle collisions that damage property and injure people.

In other area like the Nelchina Basin, the objective is to increase a moose population from moderate density to high density.  Certain areas there have a long history of chronic heavy browsing.  Indeed, moose are now at moderate density because in recent years they responded to heavy browsing and deep snow winters with lower reproduction and survival.  To push them back to high density would likely just set the stage for another decline.


Current predator control programs total over 50,000 square miles in five different areas.  Is this a small area?  Perhaps so but there are some states in the lower 48 smaller than this.  And two of the control areas are near Anchorage, Alaska's main population center with many people who would like the chance to see or hear wolves in the wild.  Although the land area of these two programs is a small percentage of the state, reducing wolves there affects nearly half the state's human population.

The control programs purport to exclude federal lands but some of the programs contain vast tracks managed by the Bureau of Land Management, a federal agency.  Wolves on National Park Service land not subject to control may be shot when they venture onto adjacent land.  This happened in the Tok area recently when at least one wolf pack left Yukon Charley Preserve land, followed migratory caribou, and was discovered and shot by a pilot with a control permit.

Several years ago a biologist estimated that there were about 900 wolf packs in Alaska but none was totally protected from hunting and trapping.  The impact of predator control on Alaska's wolves extends far beyond the boundaries of the control areas.  The BOG has greatly liberalized hunting and trapping seasons and bag limits and allowed liberal methods of taking wolves in recent years.  This is an attempt to further reduce wolves in addition to those taken in control programs.  As a result there are few refuges for wolves anywhere. Even the wolves of Denali National Park have been shot and trapped when they crossed park boundaries.


This is a specific point raised by the state during the recent BOG's emergency deliberations and later in the court hearing. The state claimed that its 1.7 million dollar investment in the McGrath program would be lost, but would it?

No specifics were provided on how the money was spent but much of it went into gathering data to justify control of bears and wolves.  These data were lacking when control began.  Expensive field operations were conducted for three years including capturing adult moose, calf moose, and bears with helicopters.  Moose were radio-collared and monitored with airplanes.  Moose and wolves were surveyed and censused over a large area with airplanes.  In remote areas like McGrath, chartering helicopters and fixed-wings is expensive and these projects cost the state large amounts of money.  In addition, there were moose browse studies and other fieldwork.  These costs, not the costs of administering the program, constituted the bulk of the invested 1.7 million dollars. Obviously, the data and knowledge gained from these studies would not be lost if wolf control was suspended.  They would continue to provide the foundation upon which the program would rely when it resumed.

Would the programs have to "start over" if suspended?  The BOG's attorney argued in court that instead of seeing results in five years local people would have to wait eight years if wolves were not taken in the next two months.  This assumes that hunting and trapping would not take the 8-12 wolves targeted this winter in the McGrath area, an unsound assumption based on wolf harvests in recent years.  It also assumes that local pilots would not take the wolves despite the suspension.  To claim the investment would be lost and the program would have to start over is disingenuous and misleading but the judge did not challenge this claim.


During the BOG emergency teleconference, ADFG staff indicated that there were already some positive results from the wolf control programs including small increases in moose calf survival and caribou calf survival in the Nelchina Basin.  This alleged result was achieved after only two years of aerial shooting.

Biologists typically use statistical tests to determine whether or not differences among certain numbers are significantly different.  Numbers can be different but until they are shown to be significantly different no conclusions may be drawn.  For example, calf survival may be 30.0% one year and 30.5% the next.  This is likely not a significant difference.  ADFG staff did not present any evidence that the small differences in calf survival they observed were significant.  It is almost certain that they were not.

Biologists know that calf survival fluctuates in response to several factors including spring and summer weather, condition of calves' mothers, age of the mothers,  predation by bears and wolves, and competition between predators.  It is very difficult to sort out the relative importance of these factors.  For example, wolf predation may decrease at the same time that predation by bears decreases due to fewer bears or more alternate foods for bears.  As a result, calf survival may increase.  If so, can we claim that the decrease in wolf predation alone explains the increase in calf survival?  Competent moose biologists would not make this claim.

Biologists also know that small increases in year-to-year survival of calves are an insufficient measure of success of predator control programs.  The objective of the programs is to increase the moose population and the harvest.  Small increases in calf survival may or may not increase the population.  It takes several years to demonstrate a population increase following several years of increased calf survival.  And, one severe winter early in the control program may erase gains in calf survival as the animals "saved" from predation die of starvation in deep snow.  At any rate, the alleged positive results already apparent from wolf control are likely wishful thinking on behalf of control advocates.


This may be the biggest myth of all.  The BOG is a seven-member board appointed by the governor and confirmed by the legislature.  There are broad qualifications for BOG members.  In recent years the legislature has failed to confirm anyone who was not perceived as supportive of wolf control.  All of the votes taken at the emergency BOG teleconference to approve a finding of emergency and to adopt five predator control programs were unanimous. The legislature apparently made no mistakes when it confirmed these loyal BOG members.

Starting in the mid-1970s a tradition was established to appoint at least one BOG member to represent non-consumptive users.  This continued until the present BOG was appointed despite problems confirming moderate board members in the 1990s.  Now, no one on the BOG speaks for non-consumptive users despite the obvious importance of wildlife viewing to the state's economy and the thousands of Alaska residents who enjoy wildlife but do not hunt.

There is also a tradition to appoint BOG members to represent different geographic areas.  Naturally, Anchorage with nearly one-half the state's population has always had a least one BOG member.  But now, there is no one from Anchorage on the BOG.  Anchorage residents who wish to contact a BOG member to discuss wildlife issues in Anchorage must speak with someone not from Anchorage who may be unfamiliar with the city and its issues.  Worse yet, BOG members may be hostile to Anchorage residents who, as a class, are perceived by the BOG as opposed to predator control.

I have attended BOG meetings for over 30 years as a biologist, as an interested citizen, and as a former BOG member.  I have heard many people testify to the BOG on the predator control issue and I have witnessed the BOG's response.  During the past three years the response to those opposed to predator control has been hostile, sarcastic, and insulting while those supporting control were treated warmly.  During one BOG meeting there was a lively discussion among BOG members who wanted to justify ignoring thousands of e-mails from all over the world on an issue not supported by the BOG.  The claim that the BOG uses diverse public input to adopt predator control programs is true, but input from those unsupportive of control is almost always scorned and ignored.