Palin, politics, and Alaska predator control

  • Members of the Grant Creek wolf pack close in on a moose and her newborn calf in Denali National Park. In the end, the wolves got the baby moose.

  • Wolf control efforts in Alaska.

    (c) Alaska Department of Fish and Game
  • Caribou on the Arctic tundra with the Endicott Mountains of the Brooks Range in the background.

  • A grizzly bear sow and cubs approach caribou in Denali National Park .

  • Setting a bear snare.

    (c) Alaska Department of Fish and Game
  • Groups against aggressive predator control have used advertising, lawsuits and public-records searches -- turning up photos like these showing wolf-control efforts -- to sway public opinion. Photos show dead wolves slung from a helicopter and other fresh kills being handled on the ground.

    (c) Alaska Department of Fish and Game
  • Sarah Palin's book Going Rogue, on sale at a Sitka, Alaska, bookstore with a note that all profits would go to Defenders of Wildlife to stop aerial wolf hunting.

    James Poulon, Daily Sitka Sentinel/AP
  • Corey Rossi, working on avian flu testing, did predator control for the federal government, and now runs the Division of Wildlife Conservation for Alaska.

    (c) Alaska Department of Fish and Game
  • Ted Spraker (in blue) was part of a crew in the late 1990s moving wolves in an attempt to keep them from killing caribou on the Alaska Range.

    Jon Little, Anchorage Daily News, AP
  • Counting caribou from the air.

    (c) Alaska Department of Fish and Game

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The recent "experimental" bear-snaring in Game Unit 16, which Valkenburg designed, will have similar results, according to Valkenburg and Rossi. The moose in 16 used to be "very productive," Rossi says, "producing 150 calves per 100 cows, but out of 150 calves born in the spring, by November, only eight to 10 were surviving." The wildlife department looked at nutrition, bad weather and the number of calves drowning in rivers as possible factors, but found that the vast majority of the calves' deaths were caused by predation by bears and wolves. In a calf mortality study, Rossi explains, "you mark them (with a radio collar) and buzz in there right after they die and figure out what happened really quickly." The agency first targeted the wolves: Between 2004 and 2009, through aerial gunning, licensed private shooters removed 195 wolves in Unit 16, and conventional hunters and trappers were allowed to remove another 131 wolves. That increased moose calf survival rate only a bit, to around 16 per 100 cows. So "ultimately we realized that bears were the problem," says Rossi.

Critics like Mark Richards, head of Alaska Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, who ekes out a subsistence living in the bush, say that factors like bad weather are more important than predators in Unit 16. Richards cites an agency study, which found that during the 1980s and 1990s in Unit 16, record snowfall caused a major die-off of moose. "The survival rates during those deep snow years were down at 35 percent for bulls and 70 percent for calves," says Richards. "Basically, what that study concluded was that more than half the time, because of the weather patterns in that area, we get such levels of deep heavy snows that the moose population sees moderate to heavy die-offs, and that it's likely this has always gone on." Some biologists say that such areas should not be considered for intensive predator-prey management.

Even Spraker says he has reservations about the bear-snaring program in Unit 16. He wonders whether a more precise aerial gunning of black bears might be more effective: The Department of Fish and Game knows the moose calving areas and which bears hang around them, so "if you wanted to really be effective in a short time, you'd take a helicopter and humanely dispatch the big bears that are living on calves. That may sound horrible, but to me that's a surgical approach with a predictable outcome, whereas if you're out there snaring and trapping bears, it doesn't make good sense. ... There are certain bears that really operate off calving grounds -- calf-killing machines. Others spend their life eating blueberries. It makes no sense to harvest bears not in calving areas."

Rossi and Spraker both defend the Board of Game's 2008 decision allowing Fish and Game or other employees to use carbon monoxide cartridges to kill wolf puppies belonging to a single pack that was ravaging a threatened caribou herd on the Southern Alaska Peninsula. The agency says that the most effective time to kill wolves is during caribou calving season, when the wolves are focused on the herd. But that's also the time when pups are in the dens. Biologists considered capturing the pups but worried about possible rabies. So in the spring of 2009, after shooting the adult wolves, they placed a small gas cartridge at the entrance of the den to kill two wolf pups, Rossi says. (They also shot 14 wolf pups in the head in 2008, to prevent them from starving to death after their mothers were killed by aerial gunning.) "We decided, rather than fly all over the peninsula killing wolves from the air, we'd target wolves right where the caribou were calving and kill them during the calving season," says Rossi. The caribou calf population rebounded: On average, 39 calves per 100 cows survived after the first spring, 46 per 100 cows after the second spring, and 48 last year.

Environmentalists, predictably, were especially outraged over the gassing of wolf puppies; Rossi says it was the most humane way of killing them. "No one likes to kill puppies, and we don't emphasize that we do it. But animal shelters kill 4 million (dog) puppies and kittens a year (and) everyone knows that the animal shelters aren't mean."

Spraker scoffs at the charge that hard-line groups such as Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife give orders to the Board of Game. "If they have a good idea, we'll pass the proposal; if it's bad, we won't pass it. We're not a 'boy' for anybody.

Absolutely not." He says the fact that the board is composed entirely of hunters and trappers, with no representative for non-consumptive wildlife purposes, makes sense: "Ninety percent of what we do deals with game management. We've had wildlife photographers on the board before, and they get bored pretty quickly. If you have a board that looks out for the health and welfare of the resource first, then you provide opportunities for photographers and tourism."

"Predator control is not designed to be fair," Rossi says. "It's not fair chase (an ethical standard for hunting). We're supposed to be as efficient as possible."

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