ANCHORAGE (AP) -- State Fish and Game Commissioner Frank Rue said Friday he will support lethal wolf control in a limited area of prime moose habitat near McGrath and four other Interior Alaska villages -- if the Board of Game also halts hunting there until a threatened moose population rebounds.
The lethal wolf control, with department personnel shooting the animals from helicopters, would be the first authorized by Gov. Tony Knowles since he took office in 1994.
''My estimate is that we will be into lethal wolf control next winter,'' Rue said.
Rue told the Game Board he is accepting most recommendations of a six-member wildlife management team that has spent a year studying the drop in moose numbers in Game Management Unit 19D east. The department estimates there are 1,000 to 1,200 moose in the unit and would like to see 3,000 to 3,500, Rue said.
Predator control and a hunting ban would be imposed on 750 square miles of prime moose habit that supports about half the moose in the game unit.
The population there was knocked down -- possibly because of a series of harsh winters in the early 1990s -- and will not rebound without the measures under consideration, Rue said.
''It could be in very low equilibrium for decades,'' Rue said. ''We're hoping to jump-start it and get it up to acceptable levels.''
Acknowledging the uproar that has accompanied other state-sanctioned wolf killing, Rue said he believes it will be politically palatable to kill predators if hunting also is sacrificed.
''It's got to be there,'' Rue said. ''I think Alaskans believe people ought to back off too if we're going to take these extreme measures.''
Former Game Board member Joel Bennett, a representative of Defenders of Wildlife, said the department's approach was reasonable. He said some biologists who reported to the wildlife management team say more information on the moose population is needed. The department will have time to determine the threat to the moose before next winter, he said.
''I don't think the public supports lethal wolf control in any area that doesn't have a serious wildlife problem,'' Bennett said.
Instituting lethal predator control just to provide food is not acceptable, he said.
''It can't be a welfare program,'' Bennett said.
People in McGrath, Nikolai, Telida and Takotna depend on moose for food. Rue said moose harvests in Nikolai and Telida declined by 60 percent between 1984 and 1995, and recent poor salmon runs have added to the food problem.
Knowles and the department wanted a plan that addressed all predators, that focused efforts on the most productive habitat and that incorporated sound science, Rue said. The wildlife situation will be closely monitored and evaluated for at least four years as the plan goes forward.
The department plans to monitor moose numbers with radio collars on adult and calf moose next spring.
Rue said he would prefer to halt hunting in the 750-square-mile area next fall, but said local residents may not accept a hunting ban until they see that predator control has begun.
A ban in 2002 would mean hunters would have to work even harder and travel farther to put a moose in their freezer.
''It's already hard,'' Rue said. ''They're compromising a bunch out there.''
The department also will encourage local hunters to shoot more black bears.
''It's not a tradition out there,'' Rue said. The department may put on seminars to show people how to hunt bears and may urge the Game Board to allow hunters to bait bears in the fall hunting season, as well as in the spring.
The board is on record as supporting 7,000 to 8,000 moose in the area under the Legislature's directive of intensive game management.
''We think those are unrealistic goals,'' Rue said, and it would require constant predator control. ''That's not acceptable.''
Team members included two residents of McGrath: Mike Fleagle, a Game Board member, and Ray Collins, a former university professor. Also on the committee were wildlife photographer Leo Keeler, Game Board member Chip Dennerlein, Division of Wildlife Conservation Director Wayne Regelin and area biologist Toby Boudreau.
Rue rejected one proposal recommended by most members: granting two or three land-and-shoot wolf killing permits before this winter ends. Rue said it's not effective in the rugged terrain with thick vegetation and it can result in more wounding and suffering by the animals.
''If we do it, it's going to be humane and effective,'' he said.
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