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Wolf Control Works

by David Johnson

In the mid `70s, early in my career as an Alaska state wildlife biologist, the Associated Press distributed a picture of me nationwide. I was standing in front of wolf pelts ADF&G was auctioning in Fairbanks. A Lower 48 reader clipped the photo and inscribed it: "This is so you can show your children what wolves looked like when they become extinct."

That they are not extinct, or even remotely in danger of becoming so in Alaska, now more than a quarter century after that photo, is obvious. Why else would we still be having rancorous discussions about managing wolves?

Standing above the rancor is the simple reality that properly applied wolf control works. An example from the wolf control program that resulted in the wolf hides I had my picture taken with illustrates.

One of the benefits of the Tanana Flats wolf control programWhen we started the Tanana Flats wolf control program in the mid-1970's moose and caribou numbers were low and falling. Wolf numbers were high. Ten years later, and some years after the program ended, there were more of each: more moose, more caribou,’s the punch line….the wolf population had bounced back to a larger size than when we started.

In the early 1980's, as an area biologist in Delta Junction, I watched as wolf control had a similar impact on moose numbers. Today, moose and wolves are again abundant around Delta.

Wolf control doesn't always work. For example, when bear predation of young ungulates is the primary mortality factor, wolf control has a much smaller impact. Intelligent application is the key.

Wolf control programs also may not work if they are operationally hobbled. If insufficient numbers of wolves are removed from a population, the advantage for the ungulate populations will not be achieved. Depending on the circumstances, game managers with substantial knowledge of pack distribution and movements may have to use helicopters to control wolf numbers. The efforts of trappers and hunters alone are usually insufficient to achieve real control.

Romantic notions of the “balance of nature” lead easily to the false conclusion that if we simply “let nature take its course,” abundance will naturally result. The historical reality is that much of Alaska was hungry country when US Army explorers began to penetrate the Interior in the late 19th century. Some of these parties nearly starved for lack of game. The Athabascan inhabitants of the Interior often struggled with starvation. The "balance of nature" there seems to have been weighted more toward scarcity than abundance.

I believe our choice today is either wildlife abundance, maintained by intelligent management of ungulates, their habitats and their predators, or what will likely be long periods of limited numbers of prey species like moose and caribou, as the 19th century explorers found.

As a younger man I scorned what I considered to be emotionally motivated arguments against good wolf management. I could then and still plainly see the potential for wildlife abundance in abundance that includes both predators and prey.

Today, I have more sympathy. I have come to understand that some of the best things in life cannot be decided or even understood on the basis of logic. I have come to sincerely respect the perspectives of those who are hurt by even the thought of wolves being killed. In the calculations we as a society make about this issue, we fail to acknowledge as honest and important these sentiments only at peril to our humanity. National Parks and special state areas should be an important contribution to meeting this valid emotional perspective.

But I also have observed with my own eyes that that intelligently applied wolf control works. It can provide a balanced abundance of prey and predators for subsistence, recreational and aesthetic uses. Alaska is poorer today for having failed to appropriately manage wolves in many yesterdays now gone by.

The main question, in my mind, is whether we want an Alaska with abundant wildlife or an Alaska where wolf populations are not actively managed with occasional lethal control. The evidence suggests to me that we cannot have both.

David Johnson is an Alaskan and retired state wildlife biologist and supervisor who worked in Fairbanks, Delta Junction, Juneau and Anchorage during his ADF&G career.  He is currently the webmaster of and general manager of Outdoors America Communications.

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