State surveys Alaskans on more predator control

Posted: Friday, February 21, 2003

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- A week after unveiling a predator control plan to boost moose numbers near McGrath, state game officials are surveying Alaskans to determine their views on doing the same thing in the Nelchina Basin.

The Department of Fish and Game has mailed 2,600 surveys to Alaska households.

Spokesman Bruce Bartley said the goal is find out if there are circumstances where the public might support active predator management.

The Nelchina Basin, approximately the size of Indiana, is in the center of the state and is accessible via the Parks, Richardson and Denali highways, making it popular with hunters from Fairbanks and Anchorage. The area has a spider web of off-road trails that hunters use to stalk game on four-wheelers.

Like the McGrath area, state wildlife biologists have studied the predator-prey dynamics in Unit 13 for several years.

''We probably have better numbers in Unit 13 than anywhere in the state,'' Bartley said.

The 27-question survey asks under what circumstances Alaskans would favor lethal or non-lethal predator control for both wolves and bears.

For example, the survey asks Alaskans if they would support killing wolves or bears if predation reduced moose and caribou populations so much that local residents who rely on game for food would be unable to hunt.

The same question is asked in regard to Alaskans who live outside the local area but who rely on game for food.

The survey, prepared by Cornell University, also asks if Alaskans favor predator control if predation reduced the appeal of the area for hunters and the local economy suffered.

''We're trying to introduce ramifications of what low moose and caribou numbers mean to an area like that,'' Bartley said, referring to communities such as Paxson and Cantwell.

The Alaska Board of Game has approved predator control plans for both the McGrath area and the Nelchina Basin but neither one was implemented under former Gov. Tony Knowles, who called a halt to the state's lethal wolf control program shortly after taking office in December 1994.

State wildlife biologists say wolves and bears are decimating moose and caribou populations in both areas to the point that there is not enough wild game for subsistence hunters.

Last week, state wildlife biologists unveiled a plan for predator control in the McGrath area that, if approved by the Alaska Board of Game in a special meeting March 6 in Anchorage, could begin as soon as March 15.

The state is taking public comments on the McGrath plan and the public will be allowed to testify at the meeting.

The Nelchina Caribou Herd has stabilized at about 34,000 animals after climbing to 55,000 in the mid-1990s, thanks to two good calf crops, said state wildlife biologist Bob Tobey. However, calf and cow weights this fall were down compared to past years, he said.

''We don't expect that high productivity to be carried through,'' Tobey said.

Though biologists were able to do only about half their moose counts this fall due to lack of snow, Tobey said, it appeared the adult moose population in the Nelchina Basin is continuing its downward spiral.

''We've been losing moose every year,'' he said.

Biologists did see more calves -- 25 per 100 cows -- this fall than they have in several years.

At the same time biologists have documented a decrease in moose and caribou, Tobey said, there has been ''a tremendous increase in wolves.''

Groups such as the Alaska Wildlife Alliance blame the increased focus on predator control in Alaska on new Gov. Frank Murkowski, who has said repeatedly he will manage predators to increase the number of game animals for hunters.

Paul Joslin, who heads the Alliance, said Murkowski is jumping the gun on the killing of wolves in Alaska.

''We need more public process here,'' Joslin said.

Joslin wonders if public comment will play any role in the decision on whether to kill wolves.

''It's as if it's already a fait accompli,'' he said.

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