Wolves and Moose in Alaska By Dr. Dave Samuel
Jul 29, 2010 - 12:15:30 AM
If you go to the Winter 2010 issue of Defenders of Wildlife magazine on the Internet, there is an article about the on-going saga of wolves and moose in Alaska. Before getting into this issue, know that in 1994 an Intensive Management Law was passed in Alaska allowing predator control. Also note that the Alaska Constitution directs that their 'natural resources be developed for the maximum benefit of the people, and that the natural resources, such as wildlife, shall be utilized. developed, and maintained on the sustained yield principle subject to preferences among beneficial users'.
It is fairly obvious that many Alaskans, natives and non natives, use moose as food to feed their families (those would be 'beneficial users' as noted above). Lots of hunters in Alaska hunt moose for food. And there are subsistence laws that allow natives to hunt moose. Those subsistence laws also are based upon sustained yield. Sustained yield is what it says . . . maintain wildlife populations of whatever species you are talking about so that the numbers are healthy, and will continue. Hence the term . . . 'sustained yield'. The harvest has to be consistent with sustained yield and the Alaska wildlife folks make that determination. Now folks in the lower 48 may not know this, and they may not understand this, but laws deem it such.
This means that if moose numbers get too low, then management must happen to allow moose numbers to increase. If hunting lowers the moose below a certain level, then hunting is reduced. If wolves lower the moose below a certain level, then wolves are reduced and the purpose of that reduction is to do two things . . . allow moose numbers to go up, and keep wolf numbers at a healthy level.
OK, let's look at a scenario where moose numbers drop in an area in Alaska. Here's what happens. First, moose hunting seasons are shortened for residents and/or eliminated for non residents. Second, wolf and bear hunting is increased. Note, they must keep the wolf and bear populations 'sustainable', but numbers are lowered. It's the law. The regulations allowing this are complex and different for different regions of the state but the regulations are there.
Wolves have become the number one predator of moose.
The Defenders of Wildlife magazine article mentioned at the outset that predator control doesn't work, and that it is not science based. So, they continue to hammer Alaska wildlife officials (as they did Sarah Palin when she was Governor) and they use this issue to generate donations from people who believe what DOW tells them. They lead their followers to believe that wolves are being exterminated. Hmmm. Let's see.
Enter a July 2010 Journal of Wildlife Management article titled 'Science and Values Influencing Predator Control for Alaska Moose Management'. As a former wildlife professor, I can tell you that the stature and standing of this journal is the same for the field of wildlife as the New England Journal of Medicine is for the medical profession. Junk does not get into this journal. Material is refereed, edited, and if it's in there, it's fact.
Here is what the authors looked at before writing this wildlife paper. The three authors, who work for the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game, had 6 objectives in writing this paper. Here are the first four, which are most important to this column.
First, to review studies and case histories to identify factors affecting moose populations in inland Alaska.
2) review manipulative studies to determine if moose survival could be increased by reducing predation.
3) review case histories that tested whether a lower level of predation was associated with higher yields of moose; and
4) review the practical realities of evaluating whether habitats can support more moose, be protected from too many moose, and be improved in anticipation of more moose following predator control.
To meet these objectives they looked at data from10 moose mortality studies; 36 case histories; 10 manipulative studies, and 15 moose nutrition studies. They also looked at anything they could find that gave contradictory results. Guess what they found from these 71 studies? 'Substantially reducing predation for several years can result in more moose and elevated yields of moose in inland Alaska's moose-bear-wolf systems'. They added that...'the sustainability of Alaskan predator populations remains secure'.
Let's take a quick look at one of the 10 manipulation studies they reviewed. You need to look at such studies to determine what is really happening in the wild. For example, if you reduce wolves and the increased number of moose calves die anyway (from bears, starvation, disease, etc.) then you have no business killing wolves. Anyway, look at this one study. From 1976-1982 Alaska Fish and Game used aerial wolf control and private hunters to reduce wolf density from between 55 and 80 percent in Unit 20A. Thereafter wolf numbers recovered in four years in most of that area. Then from 1989 to 1993 wolf numbers jumped to a new high, and stayed there thru 2008. By reducing the wolves initially, moose to wolf ratios went from 13 to 1 before they killed wolves to more than 40 to 1 through 2008. There's more to this example, but you get the idea. They manipulated wolves down and moose went up and the wolves then also did fine.
I might add that they found some other interesting things in doing the reviews of these 71 studies. Where brown bears were the main predator, 'wolf control alone produced a slow increase in moose numbers'. Where wolves were the main predator, 'substantial wolf control alone can produce a fast increase in moose numbers'.
The biology is there. Evident, compelling. The article also talks about the values and expectations of all the stakeholders in this debate. That's material for another column, but let me just add that Alaska has studied this thing inside out and backwards. Not every biologist in Alaska agrees with the conclusions of each of the 71 studies, but overall, this journal article makes a compelling argument for wolf control and for wolf, bear, and moose management.
Meanwhile, the pro wolf folks write articles about 'exterminating' wolves in Alaska. I guess that if the press and anti organizations say it often enough, then people will believe it. Sort of like President Obama telling us almost weekly that the economy is getting stronger and we have more jobs than we did a month ago, or a year ago. Me? I believe the science. I believe the numbers. I believe the biologists who do this for a living. To do anything else is pure folly.
We also have a wolf/moose/elk controversy going on in the Northwest. You can learn more about that and sign a petition to help by going to www.biggameforever.com. Please do that.
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