Alaska’s Wolf Control Programs 4: Biologists Raid Dens, Kill Adults and Young Pups in New Program
 
Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists initiated a new wolf control action in May, on the southwest Alaska Peninsula to increase caribou, and in this case are doing the shooting themselves.  In late May and early June 2008, ADF&G area wildlife biologist Lem Butler and others shot 28 wolves near an area where caribou were calving, including 14 newborn pups at dens they accessed in a helicopter.  The area is some 615 miles (990 km) southwest of Anchorage, near the eastern end of the Aleutian Islands.    
 
Each of the 14 pups was caught on foot and “euthanized humanely” with a bullet through the head.  Refer to the June 24 blog entry: pups of this age (a month or less old) are still nursing and relatively immobile at the den.  Butler thinks the 14 adults and 14 pups were from two family groups, and that possibly there are still a half dozen surviving adults that were away at the time.      
 
The killing area is just northeast of Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, 60-70 miles (97-113 km) southwest of Port Moller, a commercial fishing center with a seasonal population of about 150 people.  King Cove and Cold Bay, with fishing- and Refuge-oriented populations of about 790 and 80, are located 35 miles (56 km) to the south and southwest.  Apparently in recent years the caribou of this area have ranged primarily within Izembek Refuge but calve on state lands outside, where ADF&G biologists are allowed to kill wolves; the federal government does not permit wolf control inside the Refuge.
 
I spoke with Butler by phone on July 14, in the ADF&G King Salmon area office, located about 320 miles (515 km) northeast of the control area.  I also spoke with his supervisor in the Anchorage regional office, wildlife biologist Gino Delfrate, a week earlier.  Butler is involved in all aspects of the program, including the shooting.  He emphasized this is essentially his project, although Delfrate oversees his work.  
 
Also present at the scene during the killing activities, in addition to a helicopter pilot and support personnel, were two other ADF&G biologists - Ken Taylor, deputy ADF&G commissioner for wildlife, and Doug Larsen, director of ADF&G’s division of wildlife conservation, both based in the (main) Juneau office.    
 
A herd in need of saving?
Butler, Delfrate, Taylor, Larsen, and other ADF&G biologists have sold the Alaska Peninsula wolf control program to the policymaking Alaska Board of Game and public as an emergency measure to save a rapidly disappearing caribou herd, a mission that even most wolf advocates would find difficult to question.  They have done this by dwelling on one point in particular - a decline in caribou numbers in this area over the last six years from 4,100 to about 600.  They say that if nothing is done the herd will likely go extinct.  They claim the decline is due mainly to poor calf survival and a distorted bull-to-cow ratio that can be rectified only by killing wolves.
 
Butler told me the immediate objective is to “reverse the negative trend” and get the herd “back on its feet” with better calf survival and an increased bull ratio.  He said that “historically” there were 10,000 caribou in the area but that for at least the medium term he would be happy to “maintain” a herd of 3,000-4,000.  He indicated that 2,500 caribou currently range from Port Moller northeastward to the King Salmon and Naknek areas, but that this plus the 600 southwest of Port Moller do not add up to anything close to the historical Peninsula caribou numbers that were once able to reverse such local lows on their own, without wolf control.    
 
There is much more to this story than the ADF&G biologists are providing.  Butler, Delfrate, Taylor, Larsen, and others are portraying the current decline out of historical context.  A good source for a more appropriate historical perspective - not only for the Alaska Peninsula but the entire state and adjacent Yukon Territory - is Ron Skoog’s 699-page Ph.D. dissertation, “Ecology of the Caribou in Alaska.”  Skoog completed this classic in 1968 at the University of California, Berkeley, based on his exhaustive survey of historical records and 12 years of field work in Alaska.  He was also Commissioner of ADF&G under Gov. Jay Hammond.  
 
Armed with an understanding of the dramatic fluctuations in numbers and distribution of caribou that have occurred on the Alaska Peninsula since at least the mid 1800s, many who have heard ADF&G’s claims about the current decline and the need to kill wolves to “save” the “herd” would see this for the nonsensical proposition it is.  Per details in the March 15 blog entry, it also lacks almost completely in fundamental systems thinking.  
 
There were “high numbers” of caribou on the Alaska Peninsula in 1875.  Seasonal migrations extended from Unimak Island and other islands at the southwest end to the mainland on the northeast, with the center of abundance on the northeastern half of the Peninsula well northeast of Port Moller.  The southwestward migrations stopped by the 1880s and there were “few” caribou southwest of Port Moller by 1895.  Most of the caribou now ranged year-round at least 300 miles (480 km) to the northeast, on the mainland.  
 
The center of abundance shifted hundreds of miles back southwest of Port Moller by 1905 and remained there until the early 1940s.  In 1925, Olaus Murie, the renowned caribou biologist, estimated there were 12,000 caribou in the region - 7,000 on Unimak Island (southwest of Izembek Refuge) and 5,000 on the mainland.  Three severe winters - 1930-31, 1933-34, and 1938-39 - reduced numbers to another low by sometime in the 1940s.  A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey indicated there were only 2,500 caribou on the entire Peninsula by 1949, mostly near the northeast end; only about 500 caribou remained southwest of Port Moller.  A 1953 survey reported by the Alaska Game Commission indicated there were 3,500 caribou in northeastern areas of the Peninsula but still only about 500 southwest of Port Moller.  Skoog did a census in 1960, from which he estimated there were 7,000 caribou in the northeastern areas and 1,000 southwest of Port Moller, with “most of the latter being on Unimak Island.”
 
Thus, over the past 132 years, the number of caribou southwest of Port Moller probably declined to 500 or fewer at least three times and remained that low for intervals up to 10-20 years, yet still increased again each time.  Skoog considered the Alaska Peninsula as a whole to be “rather marginal habitat for a sustained large caribou population, because of the severe icing conditions that occur periodically.”  He and others also noted the impact of ash falls from the Peninsula’s active volcanoes in sporadically covering large caribou foraging areas.    
 
Remember that ADF&G biologists obtained emergency permission to kill wolves by letting the Board of Game and Alaskans think the current decline to 600 is unprecedented, that for this “herd” to go “extinct” would be a “biological disaster,” and that only by doing wolf control will it have a chance to survive and allow numbers to increase again.  
 
ADF&G and others have also claimed or implied that there has been a long-term subsistence and cultural dependency on these caribou in various Peninsula communities.  This argument is questionable if only on the basis of the dramatic changes in caribou availability since at least the mid-late 1800s.  Much of the human population itself is seasonal with a long-term, heavy reliance on the commercial fisheries industry.    
 
Local and regional caribou numbers and ranges, including calving areas, shift widely and often erratically at scales of decades and longer, such that so-called herds are probably better viewed as shifting centers of abundance in a single statewide (or larger) population (e.g., Skoog 1968; Haber 1977, 1992, 1997; Haber and Walters 1980; see also the Feb. 1999 link on the Reports page).  There is little basis for visualizing an ongoing high, stable number of caribou and related ongoing major subsistence use on the southwest Alaska Peninsula, in the Fortymile area (where another caribou-related wolf control program is underway), or in any other fixed area.  Caribou have decreased to low levels and disappeared for years, decades, and longer in countless areas of the North, over and over again, for as long as records have been kept.  The ups, downs, and range shifts will continue regardless of how many wolves ADF&G biologists kill and whatever other command-and-control notions they indulge.
 
Neglected costs, more deception  
Suppose there were solid biological arguments for killing wolves on the southwest Alaska Peninsula.  Quality wildlife scientists would then also meticulously lay out the potential costs for the public and policymakers to consider.  Good public policy and intelligent decision-making usually happen only when both sides of the ledger are evaluated, the potential costs as well as alleged benefits.    
 
A hallmark of Alaska’s wolf control programs is the absence of any such evaluation.  For the Alaska Peninsula and all other control programs, biologists and thus policymakers have proceeded with a shallow, one-dimensional assumption - that killing wolves is cost-free: there are no potential negatives because wolves will always “repopulate” the control areas.    
 
But as I emphasized in earlier entries about the killing of Denali wolves, there are non-dollar costs of much importance to Alaskans and many others in today’s world - biological, scientific, ethical, esthetic, educational, and viewing.
 
At the top of the list in the Alaska Peninsula program would probably be the ethical costs that offend the greater society.  In particular, Alaskans and others have long expressed a special revulsion to “denning,” the killing of young wolf pups at a den.  ADF&G biologists and members of the Board of Game have often condemned this killing method in public as too despicable for use in state-sponsored control programs.  
 
There can be little doubt that ADF&G biologists understood that a wolf-killing program in May and June would mean killing newborn pups either directly or indirectly.  They understood how strongly most people would react at the thought of state employees helicoptering to a couple of natal dens and, after killing the adult wolves, grabbing 14 frightened young pups and one-by-one blowing their brains out with a pistol.  Anything close to this involving 14 young dog pups would almost automatically result in front page headlines and a major public fury.          
 
Which is probably why there was no mention of it until I asked area biologist Butler if any lactating females were shot and what happened to the pups they were nursing.  ADF&G’s press release following the killing and a resulting story in the Fairbanks Daily News Miner mentioned only that “28 wolves were killed.”  Likewise, when the Board of Game approved the killing in March 2008, little was said about methods other than that wolves would be shot in the calving area in May and June with the use of a helicopter.  
 
Apart from the deception, it is difficult to understand how biologists could be responsible for such a thing.  Read the June 24 blog entry and look at the pictures I had just taken of wolf pups of about the same age in Denali, prior to hearing anything about the Alaska Peninsula results.  Consider the rapidly developing intelligence I described, the doting of the adults, and related behavior.  Read more about the high levels of sentience in the June 17, April 8, March 8, February 3, and some earlier entries.  Read my comments about the ethics of killing wolves in the 1996 paper linked on the Reports page, an essay that was published in the scientific journal, Conservation Biology, after rigorous peer review.  Then answer for yourself if what Butler, Delfrate, Taylor, Larsen, and others did was ethical, particularly in view of their flimsy, similarly deceptive caribou arguments.
 
I don’t know much about the southwest Alaska Peninsula wolves, nor does Butler, who told me there has not been any significant wolf research in that area.  However I am confident there were also important biological and scientific costs to consider before killing these wolves, at multiple interacting scales.  Research in the Denali area indicates that killing wolves stands to disrupt behavior, patterns, and processes of high biological and scientific value related, for example, to social interactions within family groups at one scale, foraging, social, and longevity differences among large areas at another scale, and regional kinship links at even larger scales (e.g., June 17, January 19, February 3, and April 8, 2008 blog entries, December 2007 link on the Reports2 page).  Butler did indicate that southwest Alaska Peninsula wolves probably rely on salmon and marine mammals as well as caribou, which by itself would have made the control-area wolves interesting and valuable subjects of scientific study.
 
 
What leaves me shaking my head the most is the missing sense of wonder.  I spend long hours observing wolves in the wild year-round, at this time of the year mostly sitting quietly with a spotting scope near their dens.  The behavior that I see is truly enthralling.  Quite likely, while I was observing some of it again at a den in Denali a month and a half ago, ADF&G biologists swooped down in a helicopter and suddenly turned similarly enthralling scenes at a den on the Alaska Peninsula into a horror show culminating with a bullet through the head of each pup.  
 
Listening to Butler and biologists involved in other control programs, I am always struck by how blandly and matter-of-factly they talk about killing wolves.  They seem to think being “objective” in ignoring trivial items like behavior and sentience is the mark of a good wildlife scientist.  How sad and revolting that professionals entrusted with the management of these fascinating, important creatures view them in such shallow ways.
 
 
References cited  
(in addition to links referenced in the text)
Haber, G.C. 1977.  Go to link at bottom left of Home (Alaska Wolves) page.
Haber, G.C. 1992.  Wildlife management in Alaska: Southcentral-Interior wolf control and related issues.
Report submitted to Alaska Board of Game, November 1992.  107 pp.  Available from Arctic Environmental Information and Data Center, Univ. of Alaska, Anchorage.      
Haber, G.C. 1997. Caribou and wolves in the Fortymile region of Alaska.  A review of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game management plan.  Part I: Is there a Fortymile caribou problem?  Report submitted to Alaska Board of Game, January 1997.  51 pp.  Available from Arctic Environmental Information and Data Center, Univ. of Alaska, Anchorage.
Haber, G.C. and C.J. Walters. 1980.  Dynamics of the Alaska-Yukon caribou herds and management implications.  Pp. 645-663 in, Reimers, E., E.Gaare, and S.Skjenneberg (eds.), Proceedings of the Second International Reindeer/Caribou Symposium, Roros, Norway, 1979.  Direktoratet for vilt og ferskvannsfisk, Trondheim.  799 pp.  Also available from Arctic Environmental Information and Data Center, Univ. of Alaska, Anchorage.
Skoog, R. 1968.  Ecology of the caribou (Rangifer tarandus granti) in Alaska.  Ph.D. dissertation, Univ. of California, Berkeley.  699 pp.
 
(Minor correction on July 19)
Jul 17, 2008
5-6-week-old wolf pups resting and nursing in Denali National Park, June 20, 2008.  Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Lem Butler and others recently shot adults and somewhat younger pups in a new wolf-killing program on the Alaska Peninsula, southwest of Anchorage.