Area wildlife gene pool challenged

From ferrets to pheasants, introduction of nonwild species poses problems

Posted: Friday, January 11, 2002

HOMER -- When state Department of Fish and Game biologist Gino Del Frate spotted a free-ranging ferret that had been killed on the side of the road in Ninilchik awhile back, he was troubled.

When he later saw that someone had released domesticated mallards onto Beluga Lake a day after the lake froze, he became even more concerned.

Finally, when he heard rumors that someone might be planning to release 3,000 domestically raised wild turkey chicks into the wild off East End Road, he knew he had to speak out.

"People need to be aware that it is illegal to intentionally release domestic animals into the wild," Del Frate said. "We currently have a very large proliferation of exotic animals on the peninsula."

As it turned out, no one was able to pin down the wild turkey rumor, but Del Frate said he put the word out that such a release would not be authorized. According to the game biologist, some of the domestic or domesticated animals and birds now ranging the peninsula include ducks, hares, pigeons, pheasants, ferrets and a mountain lion that continues to be spotted on the northern Kenai Peninsula.

"When people release domestic animals into the wild, they are basically killing any hopes we had of doing a legitimate release, because they are polluting the gene pool," Del Frate said. "We don't have any idea what the origin of these Sears-and-Roebuck-type animals are that they are throwing into the mix."

Del Frate said there are three major biological problems with releasing animals into the wild. The first problem is the impossibility of knowing what kind of diseases the domesticated breeds may be introducing into the wild population.

"Diseases are very common," Del Frate said. "Even though domesticated animals may be able to live with these diseases, oftentimes wild animals of the same species cannot."

Although some diseases are transmitted through breeding and general contact, Del Frate said, most are transmitted through predators eating prey.

"Even though conditions have to be exactly right for any certain disease to become a widespread epidemic through a species, once it does happen, you can't stop it," Del Frate said.

In the situation with the mallards released on Beluga Lake, Del Frate said there is no way to estimate the disease potential of the domesticated ducks.

"We can't even really differentiate these ducks from the others," he said, "except that two of them are white."

The second biological problem with releasing domestic animals into the wild is the unknown factor of what type of genetic changes might be mingled with the wild population.

"Domesticated animals may bring in genes that are not adaptable to our climate," Del Frate said. "For example, if ducks of a Florida strain are brought in, they may not be tolerant of the cold. If these genes are then introduced into the wild stock, over time they can cause deficiencies in the wild birds. This could lead to loss, and then possible decimation of the entire stock."

The other problem is that by releasing domestic animals into the wild, people are introducing animals into the system that are in direct competition with the wild population for food and space.

"This is evident in domestic rabbits," Del Frate said. "A lot of people have turned domestic rabbits loose, and they don't understand the implications involved. Most domesticated rabbits are in direct competition with snowshoe hares for food sources and shelter, and these exotic or domestic animals are very capable of out-competing the wild stock."

Del Frate said he doesn't believe people are releasing animals with the intention of harming the wild stock, but that they are not aware of the legal restrictions.

"I really think people don't know these laws exist," he said. "Education is probably the most important thing we can do."

Another problem is the weakness of the laws regarding releasing animals.

"The problem with our regulations is that they really have no teeth," Del Frate said.

Although programs with sportsmen clubs or 4-H groups in many states have often legally released homegrown wild turkeys or pheasants into the wild, that is not accepted practice in Alaska, Del Frate said.

"It's perfectly legal for people to raise free-ranging pheasants. But when those pheasants breed, some of them will eventually move off the original land. When they venture out into the wild, it becomes illegal.

"Figuring out how to enforce that is very difficult."

Because of this infiltration of pheasants, there is a feral population of pheasants that now breeds in the wild.

Del Frate said there are proper mechanisms in place to establish and re-establish certain animal populations on the peninsula. The Department of Fish and Game has a transplant policy regarding relocating animals around the state.

"We brought in a species of ruffed grouse that are non-indigenous to the Kenai Peninsula," he said, adding that the ruffed grouse came from an Alaska population from the Brooks Range area, rather than Lower 48 natives from the Northeastern states.

"We had to go through an extended amount of research to be sure that the grouse would not breed with the other birds on the peninsula or compete with the local spruce grouse for food, Del Frate said.

"We also ran comprehensive tests for disease, not only on the birds that we brought over, but also on the populations from which they were taken. It's quite an exhaustive process."

Del Frate said there had been discussion regarding bringing pheasants to the peninsula, but such a program seems unlikely.

"Unfortunately, any chance we had of establishing a pheasant stock is probably ruined now," Del Frate said, "because we just don't know what type of animal is out there genetically."

Del Frate said he hopes that by raising awareness of the problems surrounding the release of domestic animals into the wild and informing people of the regulations prohibiting it, animal owners will develop a better understanding of their own responsibility.

"We need to help people understand that their actions may not be positive, even if their intentions are good," Del Frate said. "They need to take into consideration all of the factors before they begin raising some sort of exotic animal as a pet. If you decide to raise one as a pet, it needs to remain a pet for life."

Sean Pearson is a reporter for the Homer News.

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