This morning I had a long and enlightening phone conversation with Nancy Hoffman and Chris Peterson, both of them employees with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and based in the remote outpost of Cold Bay. After being peppered with a series of questions about Unimak Island, Hoffman had a question for me. How long, she wondered, had I’d been interested in Unimak and its wildlife?
That’s a good question, one that might also be asked of Alaska’s uppermost state wildlife managers. From what I’ve been able to gather, they’ve only recently taken a strong – and unprecedented – interest in the caribou and wolves that inhabit Unimak, an island that belongs to both the Aleutian Chain and the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. Though she’s charged with managing the nearby Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, Hoffman’s responsibilities also extend to Unimak, which is why we were talking.
My own interest in the island can be traced to February, when the Alaska Board of Game considered whether to add Unimak to its growing list of predator control areas. Of course the PC-prone BOG bunch decided it would be a great idea to amp up the wolf kills on this remote island to benefit caribou (and human hunters of the latter), despite the fact that most of Unimak is designated wilderness, which the FWS is required to manage for its wild diversity, not simply for species that humans like to hunt or trap. At the time, the state seemed happy to develop a wolf-control plan in partnership with the feds, not act rashly or unilaterally.
I’d been drawn to the Fairbanks meeting by the Denali wolf buffer debate, but Unimak Island presentations by both state and federal employees did get my attention and warranted some notes in my journal. Still, I didn’t get seriously interested in Unimak until about a week ago, when the Department of Fish and Game announced that a bunch of Unimak wolves had to be killed PRONTO, in order to protect the island’s caribou herd, which has dropped from about 1,260 animals in 2002 to an estimated 400 in early 2010. Fish and Game officials now maintain that the long-term viability of both caribou and wolves – and local subsistence lifestyles – depends on the immediate killing of as many as eight wolves, or up to one-half of the island’s wolf population, guesstimated to be 15 to 30 animals. (Lest anyone protest my math, if the real number of wolves is at the lower end of the estimate, taking out eight of them would mean reducing their number by half or more.) And the state wants to do this whether the FWS agrees or not.
It doesn't matter that there’s no proof wolves are the primary reason for low calf survival. Nor is there any evidence that wolves are responsible for the herd’s recent decline. If there’s any blame to cast for the Unimak herd’s diminished size and viability and the “dire conservation emergency” that Fish and Game has proclaimed, it should be aimed at the very state managers who are now seeking to “fix” things by killing wolves and, perhaps, transplanting caribou bulls from the nearby Alaska Peninsula.
The state’s announcement caught a lot of people off guard, including FWS employees, Hoffman and Peterson among them. Though both are relatively new to Izembek NWR and Unimak Island, they are well-versed in the Unimak Caribou Herd’s history. Just as importantly, Hoffman and Peterson – like their state counterparts – know that the existing data on Unimak’s caribou and, even more so its wolves, are filled with gaps and approximations based largely on partial surveys, extrapolations, and assumptions. Peterson, a refuge biologist whose specialties include the study of ungulates and their habitat, also points out that this these are island populations, so their numbers are subject to perhaps even greater swings as animals migrate to and from the island.
“With the recorded history of the Unimak herd and several documented extreme caribou population fluctuations [including one wild swing from 5,000 animals in 1975 to a few hundred in the early eighties], why is it now suddenly an emergency?” Hoffman asks. “We don’t consider it to be an emergency. We don’t see a crisis.”
To its credit, the FWS gave an emphatic “NO” to the state’s initial plan: a three-week aerial strike in which state employees in helicopters would blast any wolves spotted on the caribou calving grounds, which happen to be in refuge wilderness. In fact acting director Rowan Gould warned that, “Conducting any such activity without a special use permit” from the FWS “would be a violation . . . and considered as a trespass on the refuge; and would be immediately referred to the United States attorney.”
The state backed down, at least temporarily, though it has since sued the FWS in the hope of launching its helicopter assault (see note at end). Instead of aerial shooting, a couple of days ago the Board of Game voted 4-1 (with two members absent) to extend Unimak’s wolf hunting and trapping season, with the goal of killing as many calf-killing wolves as possible. (The strategy calls for killing only wolves found in the calving area.) State biologists figure that means killing no more than seven to eight wolves, though how they come up with that number is anybody’s guess, since so little is known about Unimak’s wolves or their behaviors.
Common sense says that this expanded season is simply another form of wolf control, but apparently it’s more palatable to the FWS than helicopter gunships, since the agency, I’ve been told, has decided not to contest the BOG’s vote to proceed with this newest “dire emergency” response. Did I mention that this effort will occur while wolves are raising pups, and that some Unimak pups may therefore be orphaned and/or starve when their parents are killed? A couple of board members worried about the political fallout from that, but so it goes.
I should also mention that Fish & Game and the BOG insist the wolf kill is necessary because of the caribou herd’s importance as a subsistence resource. They made this determination despite the fact that only a dozen caribou have been harvested by local residents since 2000, while guided nonresident hunters killed 90 caribou between 2001 and 2008, when both the subsistence and sport hunts were shut down because someone finally recognized the herd was in trouble. This information (supplied by the FWS) merits repeating: 12 kills for subsistence, 90 for trophies. So who’s going to benefit the most if and when the herd recovers and hunting is again allowed? Locals? Uh-uh. Big-game guides? You betcha.
Beyond that, residents of False Pass, Unimak’s only community, have told FWS employees that they do most of their caribou hunting on the Alaska Peninsula, not the island they inhabit, because of Unimak’s challenging terrain and difficult access to the hunting grounds. It’s also noteworthy that the diets of False Pass and other regional communities consist mostly of marine foods. So where is the subsistence crisis? I would argue there is no such crisis, except as manufactured by state wildlife officials.
There’s no end in the state’s hypocrisy. Fish and Game’s own annual harvest data show that state officials allowed hunters – most of them guided nonresidents – to kill Unimak caribou even as the herd steadily declined. And nearly all of the caribou were bulls, despite a diminishing bull:cow ratio that eventually reached 5:100, reportedly the lowest ever documented in Alaska. That exceedingly low bull:cow ratio is one of the state’s strongest arguments for proceeding with the expanded wolf-kill program, but who’s to blame for it? Not the wolves, but state wildlife managers.
There’s also this to consider: an estimated 400 brown bears inhabit Unimak Island – as many bears as caribou – yet Fish and Game has decided that wolves, not bears, present the greatest threat to Unimak’s caribou calves, based purely on extrapolations from the Alaska Peninsula. In truth, state biologists and managers have no idea. But in this part of the state, brown bears are so far untouchable when it comes to predator control, because they’re big-game trophy animals important to the guiding industry. So whatever is killing the caribou calves – bears, eagles, wolverines, nutritional deficiencies, disease – wolves become the easy scapegoat.
I plan to get into some of these issues in more detail in future postings, but for now let me summarize MY findings: the state is proceeding with its Unimak wolf-kill program based largely on incomplete data, questionable assumptions, and false pretenses. People will be killing Unimak’s wolves during the pup-rearing season because of human mismanagement and a state wolf-kill agenda that’s wildly out of control.
THIS JUST IN: While finishing up this commentary, I learned that the state is reportedly suing the FWS so it can proceed with its helicopter gunning of Unimak’s wolves. In talking with Hoffman, Peterson and other FWS employees the past couple of days, I’ve repeatedly been told that they want to continue working in partnership with the state, to figure out exactly what’s going on with the Unimak Caribou Herd, as well as other species on the island. The state, meanwhile, clearly seems bent on getting its way, at any cost. When cooperation doesn’t work, state officials revert to bullying. It’s been that way for a long time now. I hope the FWS stands firm. In fact I’d love to see someone in that agency say enough is enough: you can’t kill any more Unimak wolves until you clean up your own act and manage refuge wildlife using solid data rather than guesswork. That isn’t likely to happen, but an already strained relationship figures to get even messier in the days ahead. That only increases my own newfound interest in Unimak Island and its sudden placement at the center of Alaska’s increasingly zany wildlife politics.