Board of Game reauthorizes wolf control on lower peninsula

The Alaska Board of Game passed a proposal at its Bethel meeting reauthorizing a predator control area for wolves in part of a game management unit on the lower Kenai Peninsula, despite a number of public comments opposing it.

The proposal originated as an agenda change request from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which is a proposal submitted outside the regular three-year cycle. If the board had not approved the proposal this year, the predator control area would have expired before it came up for discussion in its regular cycle. The Board of Game recently switched to a three-year cycle instead of a two-year cycle, and the department is working on getting its regulations in line with the new cycle.

Intensive management refers to actions taken to improve a population of game animals in a given area, which often includes predator control, such as killing wolves. Predator control opponents say it does limited good while costing the state significant funds to implement, while supporters say it successfully provides additional animals for harvest.

The reauthorized area covers about a third of Game Management Unit 15C, which stretches between the north side of Tustumena Lake and across Kachemak Bay to the Chugach Islands and Gore Point. The Predation Control Area covers about a third of that unit, or all the lands in the unit north of Kachemak Bay, including the Fox River Flats.

The board unanimously passed an amended version of the original proposal during its meeting Jan. 6-9 in Bethel. The amendment clarified language about the size of the Predation Control Area and the intent of the program.

The moose population in the area has been within the target range of 2,500-3,500 in recent years, according to Fish and Game’s comments on the proposal. In 2016, the harvest of 211 moose was within the intensive management harvest range, though in past years the harvest has been below the objective. Fish and Game submitted and supported the proposal, according to the comments.

“Unit 15C is an important area for producing high levels of moose for human consumptive use and helps meet subsistence needs,” the comments state.

The original plan for the predator control area in Unit 15C passed in 2012 but has never been implemented. Many individuals and organizations submitted comments to the Board of Game for its Bethel meeting about the reauthorization proposal, all opposing it on grounds of expense, ineffective management or concern for the ecosystem of the area. Most hinged on a phrase in the original proposal saying the department determined it could kill all the wolves within the Predation Control Area, which was only part of the total unit.

The Kachemak Bay Conservation Society, an organization based in Homer, submitted comments objecting to the proposal because of concerns about the submission of the plan out of cycle, the cost for the state and potential damage to the surrounding ecosystems.

“The moose numbers in Unit 15C are indisputably healthy and populations are not limited by predation but by habitat and hunting (including poaching),” wrote Society President Roberta Highland in the comments. “Scientific evidence shows predator control programs lead to trophic cascades adversely affecting subordinate species of wildlife and eventually habitat health.”

She said in a phone message that the society was disappointed in but not surprised by the board’s decision.

The Homer Fish and Game Advisory Committee also opposed the proposal on the grounds of cost and lack of public process. Committee Chair Dave Lyon, said the area met its harvest goal and population goal for moose this year, so there is no justification for a predator control program, especially with the high cost. The reauthorization changed the language to allow the department to kill all the wolves in the area, a change from leaving at least 15 wolves, according to the Intensive Management plan approved by the Board of Game in 2012. The program could also interfere with individuals’ ability to hunt wolves, Lyon said.

“(When the board authorized the program in 2012,) they could have instituted aerial wolf hunting the next day, if you want to say the threat of imminent aerial wolf control has been hanging over our heads for five years,” he said.

The reauthorization of the program doesn’t mean the department intends to put it to use right away, if they indeed use it. In March 2012, shortly after the Predation Control Area was authorized, Fish and Game began a research program to gather data about the moose population in the area, according to the department’s comments on the proposal.

“This project is still ongoing, and data is being collected that was not available when the current IM plan was adopted,” the comments state.

This year, Fish and Game staff were able to gather composition count data on the population in the area for an estimate, said Area Management Wildlife Biologist Jeff Selinger with Fish and Game in Soldotna. The number of animals they are able to count in aerial surveys depends on moose distribution as well as snow conditions, which vary year to year. This year, they were able to count 972 animals in eight hours of flying as compared to 488 in the same area in the same time period last year, he said.

This year, the data estimated the moose composition as 40 bulls per 100 cows, 19 calves per 100 cows and 12 percent calves for the population, Selinger said, though he said he hasn’t run the comparison between the years yet to know if the difference was significant.

“Last year it seemed like we were high with the number of bulls, and I think it was an artifact of the survey conditions,” he said.

Ted Spraker, chairman of the Board of Game, said the main reason the board passed the proposal was to keep the option available for the department as a management tool rather than let it expire. There are other authorized intensive management plans around the state that are not being used, but the department could use them if conditions changed.

“I know a lot of people are concerned about this, but we’re keeping it on the books because it’s a tool we may need down the road,” he said. “It’s not imminent.”

The Board of Game acknowledged the opposition, much of which came in form letters from what Spraker called preservationist groups. The board took them seriously, he said. However, Fish and Game supported the proposal, and two-thirds of Unit 15C would not be affected.

Even if the department chose to kill all the wolves in the Predation Control Area — which can be done by private individuals through hunting, trapping or aerial hunts or by the state — there would still be wolves left in the other areas around it which could recolonize the area afterward, he said.

During each regular cycle, the department reviews the successes and failures of each predator control program, so the Board of Game gets data about the efficacy of each program, Spraker said.

Although the Board of Game listens to all the comments submitted and considers all users, the members are mandated to manage hunting and trapping primarily for consumptive use, Spraker said, like Fish and Game is mandated to do. Much of the state is closed to hunting in parks and national wildlife refuges, and most hunts are only open for short periods, he said.

“If they get below the (population composition) ratio objective … then we curtail hunting,” he said. “The point is, if they’re hunted, they’re healthy.”

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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