The evolution in thought has been interesting for me to watch. I was a student of ecology in Minnesota in the 1970s when Mech started studying wolves in my area. As a pre-fisheries and wildlife major at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, I readily bought into the balance-of-nature theory. It was all part of the nationwide environmental awakening, as scientists documented the many and subtle ways in which humans could wreak havoc on the environment. DDT, a wonder chemical in the human war against insect-spread diseases, had emerged as a nightmare in the natural world. Man was bad. Nature was good.
As people focused on the idea that wolves had been persecuted for centuries, we understood that persecution was wrong. Anyone who'd grown up singing "We Shall Overcome'' at church camp as the civil rights movement rippled across the country in the 1960s understood this. You didn't need science to back it up.
And so wolves became for me, as for many others in my generation, an iconic image of all that was wild, natural and good. I first heard them howling in the northwoods on a fall night in 1972. They were still the enemy of some in the surrounding country, but the Endangered Species Act would get through Congress the next year and things would begin to change dramatically. By then, I was off in Alaska chasing dreams that would never end. Wilderness was at the heart of those dreams, and that kept wolves in the center of the picture for me.
At least since people stopped shooting them at every chance, wolves have shown the ability to adapt to living near us. But they cannot live among us. They need big, open spaces in which to hunt. There are more such places in Alaska than in any other state, but even here, there are not all that many wolves.
What you need to understand is that all the hype about the bounty of Alaska's wildlife is so much bunk. Alaska is skinny country. The abundant wildlife of tourism promotions and television travelogues is a myth. In most of Alaska, save some of the marine coastal ecosystems, abundance is an illusion. Animals briefly cluster around short and vital food supplies in summer, or appear readily visible in landscapes where one can see for miles, sometimes tens of miles. This creates the appearance of bounty in a land of scarcity.
Still, even by Alaska standards, wolves were particularly scarce when I arrived. Wolves here, like wolves everywhere, had been under siege. Government agents in the Territory of Alaska hunted them from the ground and from the air. But they killed the most with a simpler, more efficient and less costly tool: poison.
After Alaska became a state in 1959, the Legislature banned poison. The wolf was classified as a big-game animal and given greater protection. But significant wolf hunting, often aided by airplanes, continued into the 1970s. By the middle of that decade, though, environmentalists were filing suit to stop the hunts, arguing there was no scientific justification. They managed to stop some on procedural grounds, though they lost most of the substantive arguments.
It didn't matter. The lawsuits were in some ways just a tool to be used in the court of public opinion, and there the friends of the wolf were steadily winning. When Democrat Steve Cowper was elected Alaska governor in 1986, he ordered a four-year ban on wolf-control programs, and for the next 15 years, those opposed to wolf control largely dictated the agenda in Alaska. They reached the peak of their strength in 2000, when Alaskans voted 54 percent to 46 percent to approve a ballot initiative that essentially outlawed the use of airplanes for any hunting of wolves.
Two years later, when Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski and the Alaska Legislature overrode that ban, there was a growing body of research in both Alaska and northern Canada illustrating that wolf control worked. Some of the best research, ironically, had been driven by the argument that it didn't work. That was, however, only part of the picture. Public opinion was also shifting. In Alaska, hunters who depend on moose and caribou for food wanted declines in those prey species reversed. Killing wolves was the easy solution. And by then, visibly successful wolf-restoration projects in Yellowstone National Park and elsewhere made it harder for outside environmental groups to argue that wolf control in Alaska threatened the species.
These days, it seems that the big question about wolf control in Alaska is not "Should we do it?'' but "Can we afford to do it?'' Canadian Bob Hayes, who designed wolf control programs for the Yukon Territory just across the border from Alaska for almost 20 years, recently came out against the whole idea, arguing that wolf control is too expensive.
This is not the sort of thing many in the North want to hear. They want simple solutions in a world that seems to only get more complex as new things are learned about it. Scientific research now points to the recent high salmon runs as a new factor influencing predation on caribou and moose. Biologists already knew that the salmon runs helped support large populations of bears, which hibernate for the winter only to emerge from their dens hungry at calving season. Bear predation on caribou and moose calves has long been known to be a factor driving some of those populations downward. But salmon are now also being implicated as a supplemental food source that helps keep wolf populations artificially high.
It's all part of that old "ecosystem management'' thing. Nothing operates independently, no matter how much we might act as if it does. It reminds me of an argument I had with Haber 20 years ago while I was writing a series on wolves and their prey for Alaska's largest newspaper. Most researchers then were of the belief that wolves and their prey went up and down per the dictates of some sort of yet-to-be-divined natural cycle.
Haber was in a small minority arguing for what he called the "multiple equilibrium theory." It was a cycle of sorts, too, but with big plateaus and random movements. Prey populations, Haber argued, could stay locked in a high equilibrium or a low equilibrium for lengthy periods if conditions were right, get stuck somewhere in the middle, or bounce rapidly up and down. He got mad at me for trying to make the theory fit a cycle. Twenty years later, I'm beginning to think Haber was onto something. Not that I like it.
The most common natural scheme of things in Alaska seems to show that populations of wolves, moose and caribou remain trapped in low equilibrium for a long time unless people intervene. We've certainly done that in Fairbanks and Anchorage, where simple human occupation has pushed predators out into the surrounding wilderness. Wolves occasionally still venture into these cities, but it is hard for them to hunt efficiently there.
The result? If you want to see moose in Alaska, Anchorage and Fairbanks are among your best bets. Maybe the most efficient and non-controversial method of wolf control is the construction of shopping centers and suburbs.
Craig Medred has worked as a reporter in Fairbanks, Juneau and Anchorage, where he was with the Anchorage Daily News for more than 20 years, including a stint as the outdoor editor. He now writes for AlaskaDispatch.com, covering things like the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which is also the subject of his 2010 book, Graveyard of Dreams: Dashed Hopes and Shattered Aspirations Along Alaska's Iditarod Trail.