Proposal would reauthorize wolf management on lower peninsula

The Board of Game plans to debate a proposal at its Bethel meeting that would reauthorize a program allowing the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to eliminate all the wolves on a part of the lower Kenai Peninsula.

The area in question, the Predation Control Area of Unit 15C, consists of all lands within the unit north of Kachemak Bay up to Tustumena Lake, including the Fox River Flats and a number of federal, state and private lands. If the Board of Game votes to approve the proposal, Proposal 155, at its upcoming meeting scheduled for Jan. 4–7 in Bethel, the department could allow the public to hunt and trap wolves, both from the ground and from the air, and would be allowed to conduct its own aerial hunts.

By eliminating wolves, the department aims to raise the moose harvest in the area. Annual harvests of moose in the area have been consistently lower than the target of 200–350 animals and the population is lower than the target, according to the proposal. Because the Predation Control Area does not cover the entirety of Unit 15C, the department is recommending eliminating all the wolves from the area because “sufficient population sources can be found within adjacent areas once control efforts cease.”

The Predation Control Area was created in 2012, but it hasn’t been used yet. After the Board of Game approved it, Fish and Game’s Division of Wildlife Conservation held off on a plan to conduct a wolf hunt in order to gather more data about impacts to the moose population.

“… The department is reviewing management options to activate the program,” the proposal states. “Recent population estimates (for moose) have been within (Intenstive Management) objectives, but harvest objectives have not been met in several years.”

Fish and Game would provide an annual report of program activities, population status for wolves and moose and any recommendations of changes to the plan, according to the proposal. The commissioner could change or suspend the plan if the mid-point of the harvest and population guidelines for moose are reached, if after three years the harvest of wolves is not sufficient to make progress toward the objectives, if predator control activities are suspended, if after three years there is no detectable increase in moose harvest in the area, if after three years any sign of nutritional stress in the moose population is identified, if the moose population and harvest objectives in the unit are met or if the population exceeds a density of three moose per square mile or approximately 3,500 animals, according to the proposal.

A moose census hasn’t been conducted in Unit 15C since February 2013, when the census produced a point estimate of 2.7 moose per mile, or approximately 3,204 moose, according to Fish and Game’s comments on the proposal. The conditions haven’t been adequate in the last two years to conduct a census, according to the comments.

Between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016, three wolves were taken from Unit 15C, according to the annual wolf inventory report. That’s significantly lower than in past years, such as July 1, 2012–June 30, 2013, when 22 wolves were taken from the same unit. The 2016 report attributes the decline to low snow conditions, which made hunting and trapping more difficult and closed many areas to snowmachining.

Though no public comments were filed at the Oct. 23 worksession about the proposal and no public testimony was allowed, more than a dozen were filed for the Bethel meeting. All the comments on the proposal oppose it, for a variety of reasons — some were concerned about the cost of a state-sponsored wolf hunt, others for the potential impacts of killing all the wolves in the area and others about the lack of opportunity for the public to comment on the proposal.

The Homer Fish and Game Advisory Committee objected to the proposal unanimously. The board argued that loosening the restrictions on moose hunting would help raise harvest more than eliminating wolves and would be more cost-effective. The group also objected to the proposal because there were no hearings for it locally — the worksession, which was teleconferenced, was held in Fairbanks and the meeting where it will be decided is in Bethel.

“While it might be theoretically possible for local residents to attend the Bethel meeting to testify in opposition of this proposal, the time and cost of attending the meeting during the this time of the year would be prohibitive for most,” the group wrote in its comments. “Written comments might appear to be another option, but given that ACR’s essentially fly under the radar screen so that there is limited public awareness, the very limited time before comment deadline and that many interested locals were distracted by the Board of Fisheries meeting which just conclude in Homer, this isn’t a reality.”

The department submitted the proposal as an Agenda Change Request, which the Board of Game debated and accepted at its Oct. 23 worksession, because it would have expired before coming up for debate during the regular Southcentral cycle, said Lem Butler, the assistant director of Fish and Game’s Division of Wildlife Conservation. The main purpose was to get the program’s expiration date in line with the three-year cycle for the area, he said.

“We think there’s a chance that we do something between now and the next board cycle in this area to improve the moose population for human consumptive use, which is one of our statute guidelines and is one of our objectives for the department,” he said during the Oct. 23 Board of Game worksession.

The Predation Control Area is currently set to expire June 30, 2017. If approved, the program would last through July 1, 2022. The Board of Game shifted from meeting to discuss issues in particular regions of the state every two years to every three years in 2015. The members of the board said they voted to support accepting the Agenda Change Request because they didn’t want to see the program expire because of the transition from the two-year to the three-year cycle. One member, Teresa Sager Albaugh of Tok, said she supported it because of a statutory obligation to engage intensive management.

“What I find to be more compelling is our statutory requirement for intensive management and meeting those obligations when the conditions call for that,” she said.

The board approved the acceptance of the agenda change request unanimously, 6-0. The newest member of the Board of Game, Karen Linnell of Glennallen, had not been appointed yet at the Oct. 23 worksession.

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

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