Alaska’s wolves and bears get new protections

New regulations help wildlife on federal lands. But they’re still no match for state predator control.


In 2012, more than 60 wolves roamed the rolling valleys and boreal forest of Yukon-Charley Rivers, a national preserve just below the Arctic Circle in Alaska’s eastern interior. The wolves did what wolves do: formed family-based packs, retreated to dens to raise pups in the spring, and wandered great distances in pursuit of their main prey, the caribou of the Fortymile herd. 

Unfortunately for the wolves, the Fortymile caribou herd is also an important food source for thousands of Alaskans. And because it’s widely accepted that fewer wolves equals more caribou, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in recent years has targeted Yukon-Charley’s wolves as part of a statewide effort to reduce predator numbers and bolster game. Over the past three years, nearly every wolf that preys on Fortymile caribou — including those with radio collars — were killed by aerial gunners in helicopters when they wandered outside the park’s boundaries. Just one male was spared. 

A wolf carries a meal in its mouth. Extended wolf hunting seasons have depleted some packs, but now, a new federal rule permanently bans hunting practices meant to manipulate predator populations in national parks and preserves.
National Park Service

To further reduce predation, Alaska also made it easier for hunters to kill wolves and bears. Over the past five years, the state eliminated a 122-square-mile protective buffer abutting Denali National Park, extended wolf seasons to months when the animals have pups in tow, and increased bag limits from five to 20 per season. It also legalized baiting brown bears and using artificial lights to rouse hibernating black bears from their dens so hunters can shoot them as they emerge. And because Alaska sets hunting regulations on federal land as well as state, the regulations would have been extended to Alaska’s 20 million acres of national preserves — had the National Park Service not issued temporary bans every year. 

Now, changes are afoot. Wolves are recolonizing Yukon-Charley and a new federal rule may offer them some relief. 

Last Friday, the federal government finalized a rule permanently banning hunting practices meant to manipulate predator populations in national preserves. That includes taking wolves or coyotes when they have pups, and using bait, dogs or artificial light at den sites while hunting bears. The rule is founded on the 1916 Organic Act, which requires that the National Park Service maintain healthy populations of all animals — not just those people eat. “We’re managing parks not as a game farm that produces high numbers of prey species, but as an ecosystem where you see natural gains and losses in predator and prey populations,” NPS spokesman John Quinley told me last fall. The new rule will go into effect in January. 

Wolf tracks in Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve
NPS/Josh Spice

Groups like the National Parks Conservation Association celebrated the decision as a win, but NPS wolf biologist John Burch says that although new wolf packs are moving into Yukon-Charley, the rule won’t do them much good. That’s because no pack stays within the boundaries of the preserve all the time. As soon as the wolves lope out of Yukon-Charley, they’re toast. 

But new data may call into question the efficacy of killing wolves to bolster the Fortymile caribou herd to begin with. When asked whether predator control works, proponents often point to an experiment in a different part of Alaska, in which wolves preying on a struggling herd of less than a thousand caribou were killed. Cow-calf ratios — the most important yardstick to measure whether caribou herds are growing — immediately jumped by 40 percent. But in Yukon-Charley, despite a significant reduction in wolf populations over the past six years, cow-calf ratios have remained largely unchanged. “Obviously,” Burch says, “there’s something else going on besides wolf predation.”

 Krista Langlois is a correspondent at High Country News. 

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