by Rose Eveleth smithsonianmag.com
Alaska takes big game hunting seriously, and, in a recent meeting of the Alaska Board of Game, the state officially banned the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to help hunters track prey.
Alaska Wildlife Troopers told the board that, while drone-assisted hunting was still rare, they worried that, as the technology got cheaper, more hunters would start using it, Casey Grove at Anchorage Daily News reports. In 2012, a hunter took down a moose using a drone, and troopers couldn’t do anything about it because the practice wasn’t technically illegal. “Under hunting regulations, unless it specifically says that it’s illegal, you’re allowed to do it,” Wildlife Trooper Captain Bernard Chastain told Grove.
To get ahead of potential problems, the board decided to make spotting and shooting game with a drone illegal. This is similar to the law that bans hunters from using aircraft to follow and shoot animals. With aircraft, it’s legal to shoot the animal if you take it down a day or more after spotting it with the plane but, with drones, any kind of tracking and killing will not be allowed. According to Grove, these laws stem from a “principle of fairness”—not to the animals, but to the other hunters. “Other people don’t have a fair opportunity to take game if somebody else is able to do that,” Chastain says.
According to Valentina Palladino at the Verge, this isn’t the first use of drones banned by hunting communities. Colorado will vote on a rule that would require permits to use drones while hunting. And in Illinois, PETA’s drones, which were tracking hunters, were made illegal. And not only can you not hunt animals, but delivering beer by drone is apparently also a no-go. Spoil sports.
March 21, 2014 By BJORN DIHLE
This Monday, during a hike with my brothers, we came across fresh tracks of wolves. Three or four had milled around the trail before heading off into the dark woods. There was something electric knowing they were nearby, perhaps watching and listening. When we returned an hour later the tracks had nearly been erased by the falling snow.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates there’s between 7,000 and 11,000 wolves in the state. The densest populations are in Southeast where deer, by and large, make up their main food source. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there’s around 5,400 gray wolves in the lower 48. According to the International Wolf Center there are between 53,600 and 57,600 wolves in Canada.
One of many reasons I love living in Juneau is because all I have to do is go outside and I’m in wolf country. Their range stretches from the edge of suburbia to the Juneau Icefield — I’ve seen tracks on the upper stretches of the Mendenhall Glacier, in Death Valley and on the Meade Glacier. Many of us have encountered tracks, kills and if, we’re lucky, wolves in the woods and mountains surrounding town. Watching a pack moving along an alpine ridge, or listening to howling in deep forest is something you don’t easily forget. While healthy wolves almost always avoid people, sometimes if they’re sick, old, starving or if there’s a lot of deer near a residential area, they may come to the edge of a town. Out of desperation or irritation, they’ll occasionally turn to attacking dogs.
In North America attacks on humans are very rare. You’re more likely to be trampled by pigs while vacationing in Iowa. The few attacks that have occurred usually involved habituated, injured, starving or sick animals. There’s been one verified fatal attack in Alaska since statehood. Most people living in wolf country know this, but due to movies like The Grey, the misperception of North American wolves having a penchant for hunting humans is still being perpetuated.
According to ADF&G each year in Alaska around 1,300 wolves are killed by hunters and a trappers, and up to an additional 200 or so are taken in state sponsored control programs. Populations remain stable and in some areas, according to many locals who compete with wolves for moose and caribou, they’re too abundant. With the ability to breed at two years of age and having several pups in a litter, wolf numbers rebound quickly if prey populations are healthy.
In the last month there’s been reports of two wolf attacks on dogs in northern Southeast Alaska. One dog, as reported in the Chilkat Valley News, north of Haines was killed and eaten. The dog’s owner, Hannah Bochart, when interviewed, despite having what for most would be a very traumatizing experience, spoke of the attacking wolf with compassion. She described it approaching her while she was walking four dogs, and looking “weak and wobbly” and “scared and exhausted”. Though it killed one of her dogs, Bochart stated she “wouldn’t want this to end with the wolf being shot”.
Living in wolf country is a gift to some, a curse to others and for some it’s just normal. Many people have strong and sometimes irrational opinions of wolves that frequently tell more about human nature than the actual wolves. No other creature has been as villianized and, in contemporary times, as romanticized.
A while back I had conversation with an older man, a lifelong hunter and fisherman, who offered one of the best opinions on wolves I’ve heard.
“Wolves are perfect,” he said with a twinkle In his eyes, “at being wolves.”
I can’t imagine living anywhere without wolves. A hike would be a lot less interesting. The woods would feel empty. The mountains would seem lonesome.
Thankfully, living in Juneau, wolves are never too far away.
By George Wuerthner On March 5, 2014
Many hunter organizations like to promote the idea that hunters were the first and most important conservation advocates. They rest on their laurels of early hunter/wildlife activist like Teddy Roosevelt, and George Bird Grinnell who, among other things, were founding members of the Boone and Crocket Club. But in addition to being hunter advocates, these men were also staunch proponents of national parks and other areas off limits to hunting. Teddy Roosevelt help to establish the first wildlife refuges to protect birds from feather hunters, and he was instrumental in the creation of numerous national parks including the Grand Canyon. Grinnell was equally active in promoting the creation of national parks like Glacier as well as a staunch advocate for protection of wildlife in places like Yellowstone. Other later hunter/wildlands advocates like Aldo Leopold and Olaus Murie helped to promote wilderness designation and a land ethic as well as a more enlightened attitude about predators.
Unfortunately, though there are definitely still hunters and anglers who put conservation and wildlands protection ahead of their own recreational pursuits, far more of the hunter/angler community is increasingly hostile to wildlife protection and wildlands advocacy. Perhaps the majority of hunters were always this way, but at least the philosophical leaders in the past were well known advocates of wildlands and wildlife.
Nowhere is this change in attitude among hunter organizations and leadership more evident than the deafening silence of hunters when it comes to predator management. Throughout the West, state wildlife agencies are increasing their war on predators with the apparent blessings of hunters, without a discouraging word from any identified hunter organization. Rather the charge for killing predators is being led by groups like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and others who are not only lobbying for more predator killing, but providing funding for such activities to state wildlife agencies.
For instance, in Nebraska which has a fledging population of cougars (an estimated 20) the state wildlife agency has already embarked on a hunting season to “control” cougar numbers. Similarly in South Dakota, where there are no more than 170 cougars, the state has adopted very aggressive and liberal hunting regulations to reduce the state’s cougar population.
But the worst examples of an almost maniacal persecution of predators are related to wolf policies throughout the country. In Alaska, always known for its Neanderthal predator policies, the state continues to promote killing of wolves adjacent to national parks. Just this week the state wiped out a pack of eleven wolves that were part of a long term research project in the Yukon Charley National Preserve. Alaska also regularly shoots wolves from the air, and also sometimes includes grizzly and black bears in its predator slaughter programs.
In the lower 48 states since wolves were delisted from the federal Endangered Species Act and management was turned over to the state wildlife agencies more than 2700 wolves have been killed.
This does not include the 3435 additional wolves killed in the past ten years by Wildlife Services, a federal predator control agency, in both the Rockies and Midwest. Most of this killing was done while wolves were listed as endangered.
As an example of the persecutory mentality of state wildlife agencies, one need not look any further than Idaho, where hunters/trappers, along with federal and state agencies killed 67 wolves this past year in the Lolo Pass area on the Montana/Idaho border, including some 23 from a Wildlife Service’s helicopter gun ship. The goal of the predator persecution program is to reduce predation on elk. However, even the agency’s own analysis shows that the major factor in elk number decline has been habitat quality declines due to forest recovery after major wildfires which has reduced the availability of shrubs and grasses central to elk diet. In other word, with or without predators the Lolo Pass area would not be supporting the number of elk that the area once supported after the fires. Idaho also hired a trapper to kill wolves in the Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness to increase elk numbers there.
Idaho hunters are permitted to obtain five hunting and five trapping tags a year, and few parts of the state have any quota or limits. Idaho Governor Butch Otter recently outlined a new state budget allotting $2 million dollars for the killing of wolves—even though the same budget cuts funding for state schools.
Other states are no better than Idaho. Montana has a generous wolf six month long season. Recent legislation in the Montana legislature increased the number of wolves a hunter can kill to five and allows for the use of electronic predator calls and removes any requirement to wear hunter orange outside of the regular elk and deer seasons. And lest you think that only right wing Republican politicians’ support more killing, this legislation was not opposed by one Democratic Montana legislator, and it was signed into law by Democratic Governor Steve Bullock because he said Montana Dept of Fish, Wildlife and Parks supported the bill.
Wyoming has wolves listed as a predator with no closed season or limit nor even a requirement for a license outside of a “trophy” wolf zone in Northwest Wyoming.
The Rocky Mountain West is known for its backward politics and lack of ethics when it comes to hunting, but even more “progressive” states like Minnesota and Wisconsin have cow-towed to the hunter anti predator hostility. Minnesota allows the use of snares, traps, and other barbaric methods to capture and kill wolves. At the end of the first trapping/hunting season in 2012/2013, the state’s hunters had killed more than 400 wolves.
Though wolves are the target species that gets the most attention, nearly all states have rabid attitudes towards predators in general. So in the eastern United States where wolves are still absent, state wildlife agencies aggressively allow the killing of coyotes, bears and other predators. For instance, Vermont, a state that in my view has undeserved reputation for progressive policies, coyotes can be killed throughout the year without any limits.
These policies are promoted for a very small segment of society. About six percent of Americans hunt, yet state wildlife agencies routinely ignore the desires of the non-hunting public. Hunting is permitted on a majority of US Public lands including 50% of wildlife “refuges as well as nearly all national forests, all Bureau of Land Management lands, and even a few national parks. In other words, the hunting minority dominates public lands wildlife policies.
Most state agencies have a mandate to manage wildlife as a public trust for all citizens, yet they clearly serve only a small minority. Part of this is tradition, hunters and anglers have controlled state wildlife management for decades. Part of it is that most funding for these state agencies comes from the sale of licenses and tags. And part is the worldview that dominates these agencies which sees their role as “managers” of wildlife, and in their view, improving upon nature.
None of these states manage predators for their ecological role in ecosystem health. Despite a growing evidence that top predators are critical to maintaining ecosystem function due to their influence upon prey behavior, distribution and numbers, I know of no state that even recognizes this ecological role, much less expends much effort to educate hunters and the public about it. (I hasten to add that many of the biologists working for these state agencies, particularly those with an expertise about predators, do not necessarily support the predator killing policies and are equally appalled and dismayed as I am by their agency practices.)
Worse yet for predators, there is new research that suggests that killing predators actually can increase conflicts between humans and these species. One cougar study in Washington has documented that as predator populations were declining, complaints rose. There are good reasons for this observation. Hunting and trapping is indiscriminate. These activities remove many animals from the population which are adjusted to the human presence and avoid, for instance, preying on livestock. But hunting and trapping not only opens up productive territories to animals who may not be familiar with the local prey distribution thus more likely to attack livestock, but hunting/trapping tends to skew predator populations to younger age classes. Younger animals are less skillful at capturing prey, and again more likely to attack livestock. A population of young animals can also result in larger litter size and survival requiring more food to feed hungry growing youngsters—and may even lead to an increase in predation on wild prey—having the exact opposite effect that hunters desire.
Yet these findings are routinely ignored by state wildlife agencies. For instance, despite the fact that elk numbers in Montana have risen from 89,000 animals in 1992 several years before wolf reintroductions to an estimated 140,000-150,000 animals today, Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks does almost nothing to counter the impression and regular misinformation put forth by hunter advocacy groups like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation or the Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife that wolves are “destroying” Montana’s elk herds.
I have attended public hearings on wolves and other predator issues, and I have yet to see a single hunter group support less carnivore killing. So where are the conservation hunters? Why are they so silent in the face of outrage? Where is the courage to stand up and say current state wildlife agencies policies are a throw-back to the last century and do not represent anything approaching a modern understanding of the important role of predators in our ecosystems?
As I watch state after state adopting archaic policies, I am convinced that state agencies are incapable of managing predators as a legitimate and valued member of the ecological community. Their persecutory policies reflect an unethical and out of date attitude that is not in keeping with modern scientific understanding of the important role that predators play in our world.
It is apparent from evidence across the country that state wildlife agencies are incapable of managing predators for ecosystem health or even with apparent ethical considerations. Bowing to the pressure from many hunter organizations and individual hunters, state wildlife agencies have become killing machines and predator killing advocates.
Most people at least tolerant the killing of animals that eaten for food, though almost everyone believes that unnecessary suffering should be avoided. But few people actually eat the predators they kill, and often the animals are merely killed and left on the killing fields. Yet though many state agencies and some hunter organizations promote the idea that wanton waste of wildlife and unnecessary killing and suffering of animals is ethically wrong, they conveniently ignore such ideas when it comes to predators, allowing them to be wounded and left to die in the field, as well as permitted to suffer in traps. Is this ethical treatment of wildlife? I think not.
Unfortunately unless conservation minded hunters speak up, these state agencies as well as federal agencies like Wildlife Services will continue their killing agenda uninhibited. I’m waiting for the next generation of Teddy Roosevelts, Aldo Leopolds and Olaus Muries to come out of the wood work. Unless they do, I’m afraid that ignorance and intolerant attitudes will prevail and our lands and the predators that are an important part of the evolutionary processes that created our wildlife heritage will continue to be eroded.
Before admiring the “subsistence” lifestyle, think of wolves that the state of Alaska shoots from planes to provide “game” for their hunters…
by Nick Provenza
FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) — Alaska Fish and Game officials killed an Eastern Interior wolf pack last week, and the National Park Service — which had been studying the animals — is none too pleased.
The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports that all 11 wolves in the Lost Creek pack near Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve were shot. That included the pack’s alpha pair, which had been fitted with tracking collars as part of an ongoing research project.
Doug Vincent-Lang, acting director for the Alaska Division of Wildlife Conservation, says the wolves were in an area adjacent to the preserve that has been targeted by the state for aerial predator control, which is part of an effort to boost moose and caribou numbers.
But Yukon-Charley Superintendent Greg Dudgeon said the shootings are a setback for a long-term study of wolf behavior that began roughly 20 years ago. He said the Lost Creek pack had been monitored for the past seven years.
ALASKA… National Park Service and State Clash over the recent Wolf Pack Killing
An entire wolf pack was shot and killed by aerial gunning for the sole purpose of boosting moose and caribou numbers, discarding the fact that they were part of a twenty year study by NPS!
On Feb. 21, the state agency shot all 11 members of the Lost Creek pack near Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. That included the pack’s alpha pair, which had been fitted with park service collars as part of an ongoing research project.
Yukon-Charley Superintendent Greg Dudgeon said the shootings are a setback for a long-term study of wolf behavior that began roughly 20 years ago. He said the Lost Creek pack had been monitored for the past seven years as part of the study, which looks at wolf migration patterns, denning habits and population changes.
Alaska fully intends to continue it aerial killing of wolves, calling it Predator Control.
CONTACT ALASKA FISH AND GAME, AND ALSO DIVISION OF TOURISM AND TELL THEM WHY ALASKA IS NOT A TRAVEL OPTION…
Tourism Marketing Manager
ALASKA FISH AND GAME
Online Comment link…
By Kristen Rodman, AccuWeather.com Staff Writer
February 27, 2014; 4:25 PM
Kicking off the race, the annual ceremonial start will take place in downtown Anchorage on Saturday, March 1, 2014. The actual start to the competition will be on Sunday afternoon, March 2, 2014, in Willow, despite recent discussions.
Due to the lack of snowcover thus far this winter, race organizers considered moving the race start from Willow to Fairbanks, according to an Alaska Public Media article. However, a construction company offered to help fix the trail with specialized equipment, and as a result, the race will stick to its traditional route through the Rainy Pass of the Alaska Range.
Musher Michelle Phillips of Tagish, Yukon Territory, Canada, makes the final push on the Bering Sea ice for the finish line a few miles outside Nome, Alaska, on Wednesday, March 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)
“It’s been a very unusual winter up across Alaska,” AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Jack Boston said. “The problem has been frequent mild days, which have been knocking down the snowcover.”
In January, Anchorage’s average temperature was 12 F above normal, causing the city’s snowcover to melt. Farther northwest in Nome, the temperature soared to a record-breaking high on Jan. 27, 2014, hitting 50 F for the first time ever during the winter season. Nome’s average temperature for January was 16 F above normal.
Despite the region’s massive winter warmup, many areas along the path of the race have received near-normal snowfall. So far this winter, Anchorage has received 53.7 inches of snow, or 90 percent of the normal snowfall, while Nome has accumulated 53.9 inches, or 96 percent of the normal snowfall.
As nearly 70 mushers get ready to make the 1,000-mile, multiple-day journey from Willow to Nome, the weather does not seem like it is going to cooperate this year but not because of its normal severity. Typically, the troublesome weather conditions that the race faces include winter storms, blizzards, high winds and subzero temperatures.
“It looks like a mild start to the Iditarod,” AccuWeather Long-Range Forecast Meteorologist Jason Nicholls said. “It looks like there can be a little snow on the ground around March 5, 2014, but it should not amount to much more than a few inches.”
[The lesson here is, you can hunt and kill all you want, but you'd better not "waste" anything.]
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The license of an Alaska hunting guide has been permanently revoked as part of a plea agreement.
Alaska State Troopers say 45-year-old Michael Vanning of Verdale, Wash., pleaded guilty last week to guide offenses near Fort Yukon and Kotzebue.
The offenses include wanton waste, failure to salvage game and failure to supervise clients and assistant guides.
Vanning was fined $90,000, with $80,000 suspended, and banned from hunting for 12 years.
Vanning owned Gateway Guiding Inc. and operated sheep, grizzly bear and moose hunts.
The state dismissed other cases from Sand Point and Fairbanks. He had faced charges of guiding on private land, failing to report a violation and possessing or transporting illegally taken game.
The sentence is Vanning’s third since 1998. He forfeited an airplane in a previous case.
Compass: Wolves of the Alexander Archipelago need protection
By REBECCA NOBLINDecember 6, 2013
For thousands of years the distinctive image of black wolves roaming the snow-covered islands of the Alexander Archipelago has been an iconic part of Southeast Alaska’s natural history.
But even in this remote stretch of more than 1,000 islands and glaciated peaks, the Alexander Archipelago wolf has been no match for industrial logging, road building and overharvest.
There are two well-understood reasons that Alexander Archipelago wolves cannot coexist indefinitely with clearcut logging:
• The wolf population is directly tied to the health of the black-tailed deer, which in turn is directly tied to the health of the old-growth forests that offer protection from deep snows and promote a variety of under-story plants.
• As road density increases, so do wolf kills, both legal and illegal. In the Tongass National Forest, logging roads provide access for wolf hunters and trappers. Road density on much of Prince of Wales Island is already beyond sustainable levels.
Yet, the U.S. Forest Service continues to plan big timber sales in key wolf habitats, including the Big Thorne timber sale. That decision, now under appeal, would allow the clear-cutting of more than 6,000 acres on Prince of Wales Island that would accelerate an already sharp decline of the wolf population there.
As we approach the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act next month, the ongoing threat of logging and road-building to the ever-more fragile status of Alexander Archipelago wolves is a stark reminder of the irreplaceable role the Act has played in protecting our nation’s most imperiled plants and animals and the ecosystems we share with them.
The first page of the law leaves no doubt about why lawmakers felt it was necessary:
“The Congress finds and declares that … various species of fish, wildlife, and plants in the United States have been rendered extinct as a consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation.”
It’s clear the Archipelago Alexander wolf now needs the help only the Endangered Species Act can provide. That’s why the Center for Biological Diversity, where I work, joined with Greenpeace in filing a petition two years ago asking the Fish and Wildlife Service to award the Act’s protections to the wolf.
And it’s why earlier this month the two conservation groups reminded the agency that it is now a full two years late on initiating a status review of the wolf.
During those two years the health of the wolf population on Prince of Wales Island has dramatically worsened, mostly due to ongoing large-scale logging of old-growth trees in the Tongass National Forest that began six decades ago.
Earlier this year the Center, Greenpeace and three allied organizations asked the Forest Service to cancel the Big Thorne timber sale. The resulting decision to put the sale on hold came after preeminent Alexander Archipelago wolf biologist Dr. David Person concluded the Big Thorne timber sale would be the “final straw that will break the back of a sustainable wolf-deer predator-prey ecological community on Prince of Wales Island.”
By Person’s accounts, the estimated wolf population in the area of the Big Thorne sale declined by about 80 percent just last winter.
All the facts point to the same conclusion: to survive, Alexander Archipelago wolves need the protection of the Endangered Species Act, which has prevented the extinction of 99 percent of the plants and animals it protects.
And the unbridled destruction of that natural ecosystem from clear-cutting is clear evidence of why the Endangered Species Act is so important to making sure we get that balance right again once we’ve disrupted it.
Rebecca Noblin is an Anchorage-based staff attorney and Alaska Director for the Center for Biological Diversity, where her work focuses on protecting imperiled plants and animals.
By MARYBETH HOLLEMAN December 2, 2013
The recent news that wolf sightings by visitors to Denali National Park this past summer were the lowest on record is disheartening but not surprising. This is precisely what many scientists warned would happen in 2010, when the Alaska Board of Game eliminated the small no-take wolf buffer on state lands east of the national park.
And it is precisely what Gordon Haber, whose research on Denali’s wolves spanned 43 years, concluded: hunting and trapping of park wolves on these state lands often kills the alphas of the family group, thus causing the entire group to fragment and disintegrate–resulting in fewer park wolves, and fewer park visitors seeing wolves.
Along with Yellowstone National Park, Denali had been known as one of the best places in the world to view wild wolves, but no longer. Over 400,000 visitors come to Denali each summer–many of them Alaskans–contributing over $140 million to our state’s economy. Many cite their desire to see wolves as a primary reason for visiting the park. As Denali superintendent Don Striker says, seeing wolves in the wild is an “amazing, oftentimes transformative experience” for park visitors.
But when park wolves range across the park’s eastern boundary following the winter migration of prey, they’re killed by hunters and trappers. The three most-often-seen wolf family groups in Denali have been decimated by losses here, and visitor viewing success has consequently suffered.
Recognizing the economic value of wolf viewing in Denali, from 2000-2010 the state closed some of these lands to wolf take. But, as Haber warned, this small buffer wasn’t sufficient; in some winters, as many as nineteen park wolves were killed east of the buffer – 15 percent of the total park wolf population.
This prompted many organizations, including the Park Service, to propose at the 2010 meeting of the Alaska Board of Game–just a few months after Haber’s untimely death in a research flight crash–that the inadequate buffer be expanded. Instead, the Board eliminated the buffer and passed a moratorium on considering the issue again until 2016. Many predicted this would accelerate the already precipitous decline in park wolf numbers and viewing success–and it has.
Today, the numbers of wolves within the six-million-acre national park and preserve has declined from 143 in fall 2007 to just 55 in spring 2013 – a drop of more than half in six years. And, since the state removed the buffer in 2010, wolf-viewing success for the park’s 400,000 annual visitors has plummeted: from 44 percent in 2010 to just 4 percent in 2013. This downward spiral in wildlife viewing success may be unprecedented in the history of the entire national park system.
As Gordon Haber concluded, it’s not how many wolves killed, it’s which wolves are killed. In 2012, the last breeding Grant Creek female, from the park’s most-viewed family group, was trapped in the former buffer. The death of this one wolf left the survivors with no pups that spring, whereupon they abandoned their den site and fragmented, shrinking from fifteen to three wolves. Rather than visitors witnessing the fifteen-member family group attending new pups at the den site, they saw nearly none. Viewing success dropped by 50 percent that summer alone–all from the loss of one wolf.
Last week, in a letter to U.S. Secretary of Interior Jewell and Gov. Parnell, a coalition of Alaska citizens and organizations proposed a “win-win” solution: that the state transfer a permanent no-take wildlife buffer conservation easement east of the national park, in exchange for the federal government transferring a like-valued easement, or purchase value, to the State of Alaska.
This would fix the problem. It would allow Alaskans and visitors a better chance of seeing wild wolves, and would sustain and grow Denali’s valuable wildlife viewing economy for generations of Alaskans to come. Let’s hope the Governor and Interior Secretary can get together and solve this issue once and for all.
Alaska writer Marybeth Holleman is co-author with the late Gordon Haber of “Among Wolves: Gordon Haber’s insights into Alaska’s most misunderstood animal.”
News/Opinion November 14, 2013
Pack Pride by Marybeth Holleman
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to delist gray wolves nationwide is flawed because it’s based on the total number of wolves, a statistical approach that, according to wolf biologist Gordon Haber, is “ecological nonsense.”
Haber spent over 43 years observing Alaska’s wild wolves, mostly in Denali National Park, before dying in a plane crash while tracking wolves. To locate wolves, he snowshoed, skied and flew in winter; he backpacked and hiked in summer. He endured temperatures 50 below zero, blizzards, thunderstorms, mosquitoes, and the risk of grizzly and moose attacks. Few modern biologists have such unassailable experiential authority.
Haber’s take-home message was this: You can’t manage wolves by the numbers. You can’t count the number of wolves in an area and decide whether it’s a “healthy” population, because what really counts is the family group, or pack, as some still call it.
“Wolves are perhaps the most social of all nonhuman vertebrates,” wrote Haber. “A ‘pack’ of wolves is not a snarling aggregation of fighting beasts, each bent on fending only for itself, but a highly organized, well-disciplined group of related individuals or family units, all working together in a remarkably amiable, efficient manner.”
Haber devoted his career to studying intact family groups, especially the Toklat wolves of Alaska. First made famous by Adolph Murie’s 1944 The Wolves of Mount McKinley, the Toklats rank with Jane Goodall’s chimpanzees as the two longest-studied mammal social groups in the wild.
Wolves go to great lengths to stay with family; when important members are lost, families can disintegrate and remaining individuals often die. Haber knew this firsthand after an alpha female wolf, who, after her mate was killed in a botched government darting study, died of starvation, alone. Relocated wolves travel hundreds of miles to return home. And the first wolf seen in California in 90 years, OR7, has never stopped moving: He’s searching for a mate, for family.
Left unexploited (that is, not killed) by humans, wolves develop societies that are astonishingly complex and beautifully tuned to their precise environment. Once, Haber observed the Toklat wolves moving their den because heavy winter snow had decimated the moose population; a week before pupping, the wolves shifted to another den closer to caribou. He also recorded unique hunting methods, among them moose hunting by the Savage River family that he called “storm-and-circle.”
Family groups develop unique and highly cooperative pup-rearing and hunting techniques that amount to cultural traditions, though these take generations to mature and can be lost forever if the family disintegrates. After the entire Savage River family was shot illegally in the winter of 1982-’83, Haber never saw the storm-and-circle technique again.
A healthy wolf population is more than x number of wolves inhabiting y square miles of territory. The notion that we can “harvest” a fixed percentage of a wolf population corresponding to natural mortality rates and still maintain a viable population misses the point. According to Haber, it’s not how many wolves you kill, it’s which wolves you kill.
Natural losses typically take younger wolves, whereas hunting and trapping take the older and more experienced wolves. These older wolves are essential because they know the territory, prey movements, hunting techniques, denning sites, pup rearing—and because they are the breeders. Haber observed this many times: Whenever an alpha wolf was shot or trapped, it set off a cascade of events that left most of the family dead and the rest scattered, rag-tag orphans.
It happened again in April 2012. A trapper dumped his horse’s carcass along the Denali National Park boundary, surrounded it with snares, and killed the pregnant alpha female of the most-viewed wolf group in Denali. With her death, the family group had no pups, and it disintegrated, shrinking from 15 to three wolves. That summer, for hundreds of thousands of park visitors, wolf-viewing success dropped by 70 percent.
This is not unique to Alaska. In 2009, Yellowstone National Park’s Cottonwood group disappeared after losing four wolves to hunting, including both alphas. In 2013, the park’s Lamar Canyon family group splintered when the alpha female—nicknamed “rock star”was shot.
So it’s never about numbers. It’s about family. A wolf is a wolf when it’s part of an intact, unexploited family group. Wolves are no longer endangered when these groups have permanent protection, and when we manage according to this essential functional unit. If we leave wolves alone, we’ll be the ones to benefit.
The government has extended the comment period for delisting gray wolves from Endangered Species Act protection to Dec. 17, 2013. Go to regulations.gov and click on Gray wolf: Docket N. (FWS-HQ-ES-2013-0073).
Marybeth Holleman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). With Gordon Haber, she is the author of Among Wolves: Gordon Haber’s Insights into Alaska’s Most Misunderstood Animal. She also runs the blog Art and Nature (artandnatureand.blogspot.com) and lives in Anchorage, Alaska.