Natural born killers


An Alaska wolf and prey/Ken Conger, NPS

Almost six decades after Alaska became a state, residents of the north and the federal government are at odds again over natural-born killers, only this times from opposite sides.

Alaskans want to reduce predators numbers, but federal officials, who still oversee vast acreages in the 49th state, are doing everything they can to thwart those efforts.

At the heart of the issue is a deep philosophical divide: Should humans manage wildlife or should nature be left alone to do what nature does?

“You can’t just let nature run wild,” the late Alaska Gov. Walter J. Hickel once famously observed.  Odd as those words might sound to city-dwelling Americans, his was a view shared for thousands of years by the first Alaskans.

For “the indigenous Athabascan Indians – the Koyukun, Ingalik, Tanana, Kutchin, Tanaina, Ahtena and Han people,” the National Research Council’s Committee on Management of Wolf and Bear Populations in Alaska observed in a 1997 report, “the overriding objective of wildlife management…was to reduce predator populations to allow for growth or maintenance of strong prey populations.”

Despite today’s new-found reverence for the views of indigenous cultures of North America, this perspective on wolves and grizzly bears is not widely popular in the lower 48 where the animals survive only in pockets of wilderness in the West and along the Canadian border.

Passive aggressive

Aggressive state of Alaska efforts to boost prey numbers, along with a resolution newly approved by the U.S.  House of Representatives saying Alaskans should  be allowed to decide how to manage its wildlife as the other 49 states are allowed to decide how to manage theirs, have come under attack from a broad spectrum of environmentalists.

“…The Alaska Board of Game has unleashed a withering attack on bears and wolves that is wholly at odds with America’s long tradition of ethical, sportsmanlike, fair-chase hunting, in something they call ‘intensive predator management.’ In this context, intensive means aggressive and sustained, and management means killing,” Dan Ashe, a former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service charged in August. 

National media, meanwhile, have sensationalized the issue in ways that sometimes makes it hard to tell if it is news real or fake. “Bill Would Allow Killing Of Bears And Wolves Again On Alaska Wildlife Refuges” headlined the Huffington Post despite the fact that hunting for bears and wolves has been allowed on the wildlife refuges since their creation.

The argument in Alaska is not over killing, but over how many die and how they die. Philosophically, Alaska wildlife managers have moved closer to where federal wildlife officials were in the 1950s while federal officials have moved closer to where environmentalists are today.

What a difference the passage of time makes.

The federal war on wolves

When Alaska took over wildlife management from the feds in 1960, one of the first things state officials did was ratchet back a federal, predator-control program that had decimated wolf and bear numbers in the Alaska Territory.

“In the 1940s and 50s, widespread wolf control occurred through poisoning, bounties, and aerial shooting by federal agents,” Wayne Regelin, a now retired director of Wildlife Conservation for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game wrote in a 2002 summary of wolf management.  “The first aerial shooting began in 1948 and was conducted, primarily by federal agents, until the late 1950s when aircraft became more common. These efforts resulted in low wolf and bear populations and high populations of ungulates.”

“In 1948, the FWS (Fish and Wildlife Service) Branch of Predator and Rodent Control began operating in Alaska with the primary assignment of killing wolves and coyotes to bring about an increase in moose, caribou deer and mountain sheep,” noted the Research Council  report that became a book titled Wolves, Bears, and Their Prey in Alaska:  Biological and Social Challenges in Wildlife Management.

“Primary (federal) control methods included the use of poisons,” the book records, “although year round trapping of wolves was permitted.

“Strychnine, encapsulated in chunks of seal blubber, was scattered around carcasses of prey; and ‘coyote getters’ made from cyanide-loaded cartridges that fired into the mouths of wolves or other carnivores that pulled on the scented capsules, were widely deployed.”

Poison, which was used heavily not only in Alaska but throughout the West,  was deadly efficient and equally indiscriminate. Anything that took the bait died: wolves, coyotes, bears, eagles, ravens, foxes, martens, weasels, lynx and even the occasional loose sled dog.

As Regelin observed, poisoning was “unacceptable to a large majority of Alaskans. Following statehood in 1959, one of the first actions of the legislature was to prohibit poisoning of predators.”

State managers did not stop there.

“Shortly thereafter,” Regelin writes, “bounties were stopped. In 1963, the Board of Fish and Game classified the wolf as a big game animal and a fur animal, the first official recognition of the wolf as a valuable species. Aerial shooting of wolves by the public became common in the 1960s and was widespread from 1967 until early 1972. (But) the department ceased issuing aerial shooting permits in 1972 after passage of the federal Airborne Hunting Act.”

Heady times

The 1970s were a time of environmental upheaval in the U.S. Old time conservation groups such as the Boone and Crockett Club, the National Rifle Association, and the Izaak Walton League, which had pioneered the idea of carefully regulated hunting at a time when much wildlife in the U.S. was being hunted to near extinction, were being muscled aside by a new group of environmental organizations who thought visitors to wild places should look, not touch.

Rachel Carson had published Silent Spring in 1962. It documented the damage done to the environment with the unthinking use of pesticides to benefit humans.

On the heals of Carson’s book came Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, which painted human overpopulation as the greatest threat to Earth’s environment. It, like Silent Spring, was a best seller. 

Two years later came “Earth Day,” considered by some now as the start of the “modern” environmental movement.

“At the time,” says the Earth Day website of today, “Americans were slurping leaded gas through massive V8 sedans. Industry belched out smoke and sludge with little fear of legal consequences or bad press. Air pollution was commonly accepted as the smell of prosperity. ‘Environment’ was a word that appeared more often in spelling bees than on the evening news.

“Although mainstream America largely remained oblivious to environmental concerns, the stage had been set for change….”

Over the course of the next 30 years, inherently grey ecological issues would be become increasingly black and white on either side of a simple dividing line: man bad, nature good.

The Balance of Nature

Along about this time, L. David Mech, who was destined to become the dean of U.S. wolf researchers, popularized the phrase “balance of nature” in hopes of ending a national effort to not only control wolf numbers but to exterminate wolves – to render them extinct – in the Lower 48 states.

While the Athabascans of old Alaska saw wolves as competitors that had to be controlled, Mech saw them as a vital cog in a perfectly tuned natural machine.

“In 1966…Mech published a landmark study arguing that the wolves and moose of Isle Royale had reached a state of equilibrium where fluctuations in one species would be absorbed by the other. Since then, however, the wolves and moose of Isle Royale have fluctuated dramatically, leading ecologists to shift from this ‘balance of nature’ view of herbivore population dynamics towards a dynamical view where fluctuations are regarded as the norm,” other researchers would observe a decade later. 

The balance of nature was a balance only in the sense that it teeter-tottered all over the place.

Mech himself pointedly rejected the idea of balance in a 2012 paper published in Biological Conservation. He therein warned that a new-found love for wolves could be as problematic as the old hatred.

“The Satan wolf has become a saint in the minds of most of the general public,” he wrote. “Some 27 non-governmental organizations have been formed to promote wolf preservation….Wolves have now been credited by both the scientific literature, and especially the popular media, with everything from increasing populations of beetles and birds to replenishing ground water.”

The paper underlined the realities of nature, a rough and tumble world of winners and losers. For ever species that gains ground another species often loses ground. What is “good” for the wolf,  at least in the short-term, is likely “bad” for the moose, deer and mountain sheep.

And sometimes, it can turn out to be bad for both.

Little + little = little

Even the late Gordon Haber, a man who studied to become a wolf biologist only to become a tireless wolf advocate before his tragic death in a 2009 plane crash, agreed wolves and their prey could sometimes slip into what he called  “low equilibrium” or what other biologists more graphically described as a “predator pit.”

This is a situation wherein prey numbers falls to low levels, and it takes the predation of only a small number of predators to keep them there. The result can be a countryside seemingly devoid of wildlife.

And Alaska, where both bears and wolves prey on moose but where bears escape the harsh struggle of winter by hibernating, might be far more prone to predator pits than any state.

This was the case even before the state got into the business of very efficiently and very successfully managing salmon for maximum abundance, a form of nature tampering to which no one has ever been heard to object.

More salmon have long been known to mean more bears. Or, as Canadian researchers put it, “the single largest meat source in their diet in coastal areas is spawning salmon and all areas of very high bear density have large numbers of salmon over much of the non-denning season.”

New research, however, has shown plentiful salmon can also boost wolf numbers. Working in Denali National Park and Preserve, researcher Layne Adams discovered that  “salmon contributed up to 34 percent of some wolves’ diet. One result of a salmon diet is that wolf numbers were substantially higher where salmon were plentiful than would be expected for the ungulate abundance alone.”

Salmon-boosted populations of predators are not good news for Denali ungulates – moose, caribou and Dall sheep. But wolves and bears are only part of the problem. Weather, particularly winters with deep snow,  can also mess with the balance.

A 2005 study of moose in the wild Susitna Valley north of Anchorage found that fewer than 10 percent of calves were surviving the first six months of life. Winters then were severe. Cow moose that wallowed through deep snow were weak in the spring. They were barely able to defend themselves from predators, let alone their calves.

If you love wildlife, who do you root for in that situation? The moose mommas enduring the agony of losing their young or the predators getting fat on vulnerable, innocent moose calves?

The Su Valley situation fit the definition of a predator pit, but it was a complicated situation.

As the Research Council observed earlier in its analysis of predator pits, “it is already clear that no single pattern dominates those interactions. Variations in weather, habitat conditions, and behavior of predators and prey guarantee that outcomes will be varied, difficult to predict, and difficult to interpret.”

That hasn’t changed at all over the years even as Alaska has changed a lot.

The human element

At Statehood, Alaska was home to fewer than 230,000 year-round residents, and more than half of them lived in one of two cities – Anchorage or Fairbanks – or the state’s ecologically rich Panhandle.

Many people in the cities supplemented their food supplies with wild game, but there were only about 70,000 in rural Alaska depending on it. Today, there are about half again as many people in those rural areas, despite large migrations to the state’s urban core over the past 20 years.

Wild game remains a vital food source in rural Alsaka, but more than that it is also a source of income in places where jobs are few and far between.

One rural Alaskan facing this reality on both fronts is Gilbert Huntington, a plaintiff in a lawsuit the Alaska Professional Hunters Association and the Sportsmen’s Alliance Federation have filed against the U.S. Department of the Interior in an effort to stop its effort to block state predator management.

“Huntington is a resident of Galena,” a community on the Yukon River in the Interior, the suit says. “He guides hunts on lands within Alaska, including on lands very near Innoko NWR (National Wildlife Refuge) and Koyukuk NWR. He personally hunts for food on Innoko NWR, Koyukuk NWR and nearby areas. (He) is a member of the Athabaskan Native community. He and his family rely on meat he hunts (primarily ungulates, but also a significant amount of bear) for a substantial portion of his caloric intake. It is much more economical for him to hunt for meat in his rural area than to purchase store-bought meat, which is very expensive in rural Alaska. As a member of the Athabaskan community, the ability to continue traditional subsistence uses is of important cultural and religious significance to Mr. Huntington.”

And the money Huntington makes guiding?

It helps make the difference between supporting himself and collecting some sort of government assistance to survive in an area where the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska found that more than 50 percent of the population had no job in “148 of the roughly 200 Native census places.”

The 50-percent bar, ISER said, was important because “federal welfare reform established a five-year cap on benefits to adult recipients. However, under a provision of federal law, residents of Alaska Native villages with 50 percent or more of adults not working are exempt from that limit, as long as they remain in the communities.”

Suffice to say, there are a lot of people in rural Alaska dependent to greater or lesser degrees on various sorts of federal hand-outs, and federal hand-outs corrode the soul. Huntington and his co-plaintiffs argue that predator management is good for rural Alaska, that when predators numbers are reduced to boost prey numbers, rural Alaskans win.

People are put to work either hunting for themselves for food or making money helping others pursue Alaska wildlife, be it with a gun or a camera. In the case of the gun, most of the meat from guided kills often goes to local assistant guides and packers or community elders. And in the case of the camera, of course, nothing is killed.

That killing predators would boost wildlife viewing opportunities might sound odd to urban Americans, but the reality of natural ecosystems is that it is easier to produce plentiful prey than it is to produce predators, which will never be plentiful. Dependent as the latter are on the size of the prey base, predators will always number a tiny fraction of their prey.

On some level, the predator management argument now underway in the 49th state isn’t about having large numbers of predators versus small numbers of predators; it’s about having small numbers of predators versus smaller numbers of predators.

Or not, because there is – all the scientists agree – that point at which things slide into the predator pit where you have small numbers of prey and tiny numbers of predators.

On another level, however, this isn’t about either of those things. And it isn’t about science. It’s about how animals die. Killing bear cubs or wolf pups  – though these are the most common victims in natural ecosystems powered by the death of the young – is frowned upon. So, too, shooting animals from airplanes or trapping them to die a less than instant death.


Because it’s easy to get caught up in how animals die versus why. Because animals seem so innocent and  vulnerable in a world where people, if you read the news which with today’s heavy focus on crime and politics, seem so cruel and ruthless.
























2 replies »

  1. Management is at its best when smart and rational people, with no ideological bias, do the managing. BOG has never shown that they were smart people that made good management choices. Mostly their decisions are knee-jerk reactions to fake news fed to them by their self-serving cronies. Game boards in the L48 are usually much more balanced, and less corrupt. The feds should continue to manage game in much of Alaska, because Alaskans are not smart enough to do it themselves.

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