Alaska Proceeds With Killing Wolves--to a Howl of Protest

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the great spruce forests south of here, the state of Alaska has begun killing wolves by the dozens--trying to reduce predators and save caribou for human hunters.

To the displeasure of almost everyone involved, the wolves are being slain in the worst of ways, causing suffering and social disruption among these highly organized and rare creatures.

Political compromise and worry about national reaction have brought Alaska to this unhappy pass. A hotblooded clash between hunters, environmentalists and animal protectionists is now also a tale about the fickle attention of the news media and the tortuous maneuverings by both sides to shape public opinion.

As of this week, 65 wolves, mostly young animals, have been slain by Alaska Department of Fish and Game trappers. The animals are lured by the bait of moose and caribou carcasses and then choked in preset neck snares. If they don’t die in the snares, they are shot to death on the spot.

The government’s goal is to eliminate 100 to 150 wolves, or 75% to 80% of those that roam a 4,030-square-mile area between Fairbanks and Denali National Park to the south.

With rolling forests and foothills spread across an area bigger than Connecticut, this area was once popular with caribou hunters from Fairbanks. But the local caribou herd, which numbered 10,700 four years ago, has dropped to 4,000 head, and, as a result, hunting of caribou has been prohibited here since November, 1991.

Hunters say they believe that predation by wolves and grizzly bears, combined with uncommonly harsh winters, has driven down the number of caribou and that the animals now need extra protection if they are to rebound quickly.

Nonsense, opponents say. Caribou herds fluctuate dramatically in size, usually without relation to predators, and Alaska’s overall caribou population is at near record highs, as hunters would find if only they would venture farther from roads.

But the argument is really larger and more fundamental--a contest for meat and dominance, if you will, between those two relentless predators, Canis lupus and Homo sapiens .

Hunters say they believe that Alaska’s 5,000 to 7,000 wolves--which are not listed as threatened or endangered here as they are in the Lower 48--are getting more than a fair share of the caribou and moose everywhere in the state.

Environmentalists counter that no humans are starving for lack of game, so nature should be left largely intact.

Alaska stirred up a national stink last winter when it sided with hunters and advanced a plan to kill wolves in three large areas within reach of Fairbanks.

At that time--and this became a key to events that followed--the Department of Fish and Game proposed tracking radio-collared wolves from the air and shooting entire packs at a time. Aerial wolf control had been standard fare in the state on and off until the early 1980s.

The idea aroused national rage, and a tourism boycott by the Washington-headquartered Fund for Animals and the Friends of Animals in Connecticut, later joined by other groups, sent panic through Alaska’s political and tourism Establishment. Vacation travel bookings slumped, and officials said the wolf kill looked like it might be harder on their industry than the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Gov. Walter J. Hickel stepped in and decreed that there would be no aerial wolf control.

Environmentalists and animal protectionists rejoiced. The tourism boycott was lifted. Hunters fumed.

For many Americans, the tale ended there. The national news media retreated.

But Fairbanks-area hunters and trappers appealed to the state Board of Game. The panel, which is dominated by hunters and trappers and has a constitutional mandate to manage game for public harvest, approved an experimental wolf-control program that would rely on snare traps in one of the three large tracts. Private hunting and trapping regulations were also liberalized throughout the state.

Such ground-based trapping is fraught with its own problems, however.

Government scientists, hunter activists and the opponents of wolf control all agree that it is far less desirable than aerial hunting: Shooting generally brings a swifter end than strangling in a snare, and aerial hunting allows entire packs to be eliminated rather than randomly reducing the numbers in each pack.

Many biologists say they believe that for animals with elaborate communal relationships like wolves, taking out packs in their entirety causes the least of what humans think of as social disruption.

“We are shredding their social structure--the very thing that makes them wolves. We’re not talking about just having four-legged canines survive out there, but wolves. And what makes them wolves is their very sophisticated social structure. That’s what sets this species apart,” said Gordon Haber, a wildlife scientist who has studied wolves for 28 years. He is working under a contract with animal protection organizations opposed to the state trapping and snaring program.

Another consideration is that eliminating random wolves rather than entire packs may trigger greater breeding among survivors--as is known to happen with coyotes.

This could put the state in the position of having to kill still greater numbers of wolves in future years.

But having fought off aerial hunting last year, opponents of the wolf kill are not inclined to embrace it now as a compromise.

“Biologically it may make more sense (to shoot them from the air). But it’s like saying: What’s the best way to kill a kindergarten class? This is absolutely miserable stuff, and I’m just not going to approve any killing at all,” said Pricilla Feral, whose Friends of Animals group is leading the call for a renewed tourism boycott in 1994.

In the meantime, the day-by-day argument over the trapping program has become a macabre PR fight.

Opponents want to photograph the dead wolves to spread the pictures across the nation; the state responds by skinning the carcasses before allowing anyone to view them. The scene is like the back room in a butcher’s shop and few, if any, pictures, are published as a result.

Opponents cry out in alarm when they learn that state game agents delivered the coup de grace to snared and dying wolves with a shot into the side, not to the head. This prolongs the suffering of these animals just to preserve the skulls for research, opponents charge.

Not so, replies the state. When agents come across a thrashing wolf in a snare, the heart-lung area is a bigger target than the head.

The two-year struggle is generating new frictions within the ranks of both hunters and environmentalists.

Some hunters’ groups, such as the Alaska Outdoor Council, strike a temperate tone. Dick Bishop, vice president of the council, asks urban Americans to consider the “environmental correctness” of the traditional Alaska lifestyle of filling the freezer with wild game.

“Self-sufficiency just makes eminent good sense. There is less impact on the environment than buying food and materials through conventional commercial sources. Sometimes we have to recognize that it’s not the grocery store that nourishes us, but it’s Mother Earth that nourishes us,” he said.

But other hunters are fed up and are talking tough. They want more reductions in predators and more game for hunters.

“We’ve half-stepped our way to the edge of the cliff. We can’t take another step without falling off,” said Ralph Seekins, a prominent Fairbanks businessman and leader of the militant new Alaska Wildlife Conservation Assn.

Of each year’s harvestable surplus of wildlife, he proposes 30% for hunters, 30% for bears and 30% for wolves, leaving 10% mortality for natural causes.

“Doesn’t that seem fair?” he asked.

Today, by his count, hunting is responsible for only 2.5% of the mortality of moose, sheep and caribou in Alaska. Bears and wolves kill 87.5%, with 10% attributable to natural causes. To change the equation would require widespread reduction of grizzly bears and wolves, which the association says it will seek in 1994.

Opponents of the wolf kill also find themselves divided.

Mainstream environmental organizations are trying to attack the state program through changes in federal law and regulation. Recently, they pressured the federal Fish and Wildlife Service to prohibit private hunters from using aircraft to assist in hunting wolves.

As part of Alaska’s overall goal of reducing predators, hunters this winter were given the go-ahead to use planes to locate wolves, then land and shoot them. The new federal regulations will outlaw this land-and-shoot practice on national wildlife refuges.

Animal protectionists, on the other hand, say that only a renewed tourism boycott can stop the wolf kill, and they are critical of those who refuse to join.

So far the strategy has been a lonely crusade by the Friends of Animals, but the larger Fund for Animals group promises its own advertising campaign for a boycott.

Environmental organizations, by and large, have resisted the boycott approach--chiefly because small ecotourism businesses with pro-conservation leanings are the first to be hurt.

Indeed, the Alaska Wilderness Recreation and Tourism Assn. says it faces devastating consequences.

“We’re angry--both at the state and the boycotters. We don’t have any say in this (wolf-control) policy but we’re being hurt,” said Nancy Lethcoe, president of the group. Last year’s six-week boycott caused a 10% cut in ecotourism in Alaska, she said. This year’s bookings through the winter holiday season are way down, in some cases as much as 90%.

But animal protectionists argue that there is no other way to reach Alaska policy-makers.

“Money is the only thing the state of Alaska understands,” Feral said, criticizing environmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club, that are sponsoring guided outdoor trips to Alaska in 1994.

Cruise lines and bus tours make tourism Alaska’s No. 3 employer behind government and seafood. The state’s Visitors’ Bureau reports that it is too early to tell whether a boycott will reduce the 1 million or so tourists expected in 1994.

For now, Executive Director Karen Cowart says, “we expect no less than a 4% increase in visitors for 1994.”