News stories and commentaries about the novel coronavirus pandemic have rightly overshadowed coverage of many other issues at the local and state (and national) level. But occasionally it’s necessary to report and comment upon other matters of great interest to Alaskans, for instance wildlife management. One example that I’ll examine here, which has gotten minimal media attention, is the dramatic, unsettling and, I would argue, unacceptable overharvest of wolves this past winter on the Prince of Wales Archipelago (POW) in Southeast Alaska.
In early March, the Department of Fish and Game (F&G) issued an “advisory announcement” that reported an unprecedented kill of 165 wolves by trappers and hunters in Game Management Unit 2 (which essentially is the same as POW) during the season that ended in mid-January. By contrast, annual wolf harvest numbers since 2000 had averaged 43 animals, with a high of 77 in 2004.
In short, this winter’s harvest was a huge jump over past seasons, following a change in the state’s management strategy. That in itself should raise some red flags.
But what’s especially disturbing about the 165 human-killed wolves is that it nearly matches F&G’s most recent estimate of the POW wolf population: 170 animals (with a possible range of 147 to 202 animals).
Based on F&G’s own statistics, this winter’s human kill of wolves may have decimated the POW population. Yet department managers and Board of Game (BOG) members haven’t seemed especially concerned, perhaps because no one really knows the size of the wolf population (its population estimate is from a fall 2018 survey). And state wildlife officials have expressed confidence that the wolves are “resilient” enough to rebound, even if their numbers have been drastically reduced. If necessary, F&G managers say, they can always restrict or even shut down next year’s season.
Still, even state wildlife managers admit questions and uncertainty abound.
You would think that such uncertainty would compel F&G to conservatively manage POW’s wolves, something it did for much of the past decade. This is especially true because studies done by researcher David Person across more than two decades (1992 through 2013) revealed POW wolves to be an isolated and in his words “unique” subset of the Panhandle’s Alexander Archipelago wolf population, which itself is distinct from other North American wolves and has been considered a “species of concern.”
Because it is both small and isolated, the POW wolf population is especially vulnerable to human impacts, for instance logging operations—or the overkill of its members by trappers and hunters.
Both the BOG and F&G know all of this—or should know it—because for much of his career the now-retired Person worked as a state wildlife researcher; and he enthusiastically shared his unmatched knowledge of the Panhandle’s deer and wolves, including and especially on POW, where the wolves’ isolation “complicates management of the wolf population because it is not buffered by immigration and has limited genetic diversity.”
I’ve listened to Person’s 2010 report to the BOG, in which he clearly spelled out the unique and isolated nature of POW wolves (which, it might be mentioned, have been considered for endangered or threatened status under the Endangered Species Act as recently as 2016, though such protections were not given).
This brings me to the state’s decision to move from a conservative strategy, with a strict harvest cap, to a new one enacted this past year, which was precipitated in large part because the former strategy “resulted in unpredictable and often short trapping seasons” which trappers complained “limited their flexibility to plan, and at times has forced them to go out in unfavorable weather conditions to close their traplines in compliance with emergency orders.”
In other words (as I read this explanation), the new strategy would make it less burdensome for trappers to catch and kill POW wolves.
Over the course of two years, state and federal wildlife agencies along with citizens’ advisory groups and, yes, trappers, developed what F&G has described as a “new strategy that would provide the flexibility and responsibility [my emphasis] the trappers desired while sustainably managing harvest of this high-profile wolf population.”
Only one problem: the resulting harvest was far from sustainable. Even the BOG and F&G recognize this.
The question that I’ve posed to state wildlife managers is this: given the unique and vulnerable nature of POW wolves, and the fact that F&G was moving to a brand-new management strategy, why didn’t the state enact some sort of safeguards to prevent the sort of overharvest that occurred?
So far I haven’t gotten any satisfactory answer from the F&G managers I’ve questioned. The department’s simplistic—and to me, unsatisfactory—answer is that the overharvest resulted from a “doubling of the normal trapping effort,” something it apparently hadn’t considered even with looser regulations.
Based on what I’ve learned to date, it appears that state wildlife managers deferred to trappers at the expense of wolves. In both the news release announcing the new management strategy and the advisory announcement that followed the record-high kill, F&G has made clear that it was depending on trappers to assume responsibility for their harvest (as noted above) and “moderate their efforts [again, my emphasis] so the population would remain within the objective range.”
To me that sounds an awful lot like trapper self-regulation. What else would you call it when there’s no harvest limit and the state essentially takes a hands-off approach while waiting until after the trapping season to learn how many wolves were killed? If state managers had been monitoring the trapping effort, at minimum it would have realized that effort had increased substantially, allowing for some in-season adjustment. Or even an emergency closure, no matter that it might have peeved some trappers and hunters.
We hear time and again from state managers that the wildlife comes first. But as we’ve repeatedly witnessed across the years, that may be true for many species, but not for wolves nor (in recent years) for bears where they are deemed to be competitors with human hunters.
Not even a unique, isolated and small group of wolves vulnerable to overharvest seems to merit the special considerations given to trappers, despite the knowledge (based on past trapper testimony) that some are willing to “game the system.”
Well, this year the whole damn system was handed over to trappers and hunters, who didn’t seem to care much about “moderating” their efforts, not when they had free rein to kill as many wolves as they wanted, without any oversight at all.
When informed of the resulting toll, Person, the long-time researcher, was blunt: “It is unsustainable and basically wolf control.”
And I’ll add that the whole thing is both a disgrace and an unacceptably egregious abdication by F&G managers of their management responsibilities.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is the author of more than a dozen books about Alaska, including “Alaska’s Bears” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” He also writes a “City Wilds” column for the Anchorage Press.