Wolf History, Conservation, Ecology and Behavior

Wolfology Item # 226
(May/June 1993)

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Alaska's War on Wolves
Ted Williams
Hatching a plan to artificially inflate moose and caribou populations for the sake of hunters by killing wolves, Alaska's governor and its Board of Game are confronted by a storm of protest by "outsiders."
"Okay," crowed my pal Howie, who'd phoned at 11:30 P.M. "Who just said this on national TV: 'You can't let nature just run wild'?" Not Yogi Berra, he disclosed; not ChemLawn's ad department....Did I give up?
The correct answer, he stated, was Governor Wally Hickel of Alaska.
Mr. Hickel repeated the comment about a month later, on January 16, 1993, when I joined him in Fairbanks for his three-day wolf summit, designed to facilitate a "constructive exchange of ideas" among those with passionate feelings about his state Fish and Game department's recently released plan to shoot wolves. This time the governor noted that had he let nature just run wild, the literally lousy wolves of the Kenai Peninsula would still have lice. Only by the good offices of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which shot them full of medicine, had the wolves been spared this affliction.
But if you're a hunter from Fairbanks or Anchorage who likes to "harvest" game without a whole lot of effort, wolves themselves are an affliction. In the long term, killing wolves -- or any predator -- on behalf of prey is like trying to streamline a schooner by cutting off her keel. In the short term, however, fewer wolves can mean more moose and caribou -- Alaska's livestock, Hickel calls them -- for those residents who see tundra and taiga as a Stop & Shop. And because Fish and Game is funded primarily by the sale of fishing and hunting licenses, more wild ungulates can mean more revenue for the agency. Manipulating nature for production of a few commercially valuable wildlife species doesn't make much sense to biologists, who tend to think in terms of ecosystems. But biologists only write recommendations. Management decisions are made by bio-politicians, who think in terms of constituents.
So last November Fish and Game hatched a plan to artificially inflate moose and caribou populations between Anchorage and Fairbanks by killing wolves -- 300 to 400 the first year (1993), followed by annual maintenance killing of 100 to 300. The previous winter some of the wolves had been tranquilized and fitted with radio collars, the better to lead Fish and Game to family members. Whole packs were to be wiped out by "wolf managers" riding in helicopters and firing semiautomatic shotguns....In two of the three target areas, 75 to 80 percent of the wolves were to be eliminated for up to five years....
Nothing aberrant about the Strategic Wolf Management Plan, as it was called, especially in light of the fact that the state annually manages to death approximately 1,000 wolves by permitting and encouraging private citizens to conduct a mechanized ground war on them. This was just the traditional, barnyard-style game production we've been hearing about since at least 1955, the year Field & Stream magazine published its classic "Strafing Arctic Killers," by Alaskan wolf manager and future governor Jay Hammond.
Until 1971 anyone could go gun-shipping for Alaskan wolves, but that year Congress passed the Airborne Hunting Act, which proscribed the use of aircraft for killing or harassing wildlife. Fish and Game was swift to respond. First it issued trapping licenses to private pilots, allowing them to "trap" wolves by shooting them, supposedly from the ground. (Later, when it got razzed for doublespeak, it renamed the sport "land-and-shoot."). Second, under an exemption in the Airborne Hunting Act for "protection of wildlife" by state agents, Fish and Game embarked on "scientific" wolf control....
From 1976 until Governor Steve Cowper froze funding in 1983, it spent $824,000 gunning down 1,300 wolves ($633.84 per wolf), with no significant long-term improvement in game populations.
In 1992, when Fish and Game moved to reauthorize and refund scientific wolf control, the state found it very hard to sell. Daily Hickel mushed through a blizzard of letters, faxes, and phone messages sent him by irate wolf lovers as far away as France. National environmental organizations studied legal options. Demonstrations were held in New York City and Seattle. In San Francisco, Alaska-bound flights were picketed. In Oregon, Congressman Peter DeFazio called wolf control "voodoo biology" and asked the FCC to investigate Fish and Game's use of radio collars; then he set about drafting an amendment to the Airborne Hunting Act to protect wolves from wolf managers. Three Alaska helicopter services announced they wouldn't bid on wolf-control contracts. Led by the New York City-based Fund for Animals, mainstream greenies and animal-rights activists united in an Alaskan travel boycott....
The pressure got to Hickel in early December, and he fired off letters to 57 out-of-state conservation groups, offering to export Alaskan wolves at the cost of capture and transfer. It was, he said, "a viable and preferred alternative" to management by bullet. If he was being serious, he was even more ignorant than environmentalists had supposed. If he was being sardonic, environmentalists didn't get it. Now his hate mail was diluted with sober, patient lectures about why subarctic caribou eaters were gentically unsuitable for recolonizing the Rocky Mountain West.
....At this point tourism officials were projecting an $85 million loss; the governor began talking about how wildlife decision makers needed to be mindful of "political perceptions." On December 22, 1992, he aborted wolf control for the coming year, and the boycott ended.
But the Alaska Board of Game...has proposed that wolf control via land-and-shoot sport hunting, banned in October 1991, be reinstated in 1994.
One trouble with land-and-shoot is that you really can't do it without violating the federal Airborne Hunting Act. Dumb, Alaskan wolves are not. The instant they perceive a distant plane they dash for cover and cannot be killed unless illegally harassed into an open area suitable for landing. In one celebrated case of harassment prosecuted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a wolf jumped up and bit the plane's wing. In another a wolf was so exhausted from the chase that it rested its head against a small conifer and allowed itself to be shot in the ear with a .22 pistol.
Fish and Wildlife agent Al Crane has advised the Alaska Department of Fish and Game that probably 95 percent of all land-and-shoot hunting is unlawful....
I arrived in Fairbanks for Governor Hickel's wolf summit more confused than suspicious....Fifteen hundred souls had turned out -- the Alaska equivalent of a Super Bowl crowd....
Outside the city's convention, in which the summiteers had convened over plastic-shrouded hockey ice, hundreds of urban hunters in orange and wearing orange armbands commenced the dialogue with such placard messages as ENVIRONMENTALISTS: KISS MY ALASKA ASS....
Inside, the quality of conversation improved, but only to the level of that which I'd encountered in other hockey rinks. Flanked by armed security guards, Wendell Zesiger from the town of North Pole was having a nasty row with the people in charge of summit literature. After chastising me for being pro-wolf and worshipping "the creation rather than the creator," he asserted that wolves were "destroying game" and that he had it from the Scriptures that they were "deceptive and sneaky."....
I was especially anxious to converse with representatives of the Alaska Outdoor Council, the lobby for urban hunters who blame wolves for empty freezer space. The council also serves as a catch basin for wolf controllers on their way to and from Fish and Game. Presently, I spied the council's chief lobbyist and perhaps Alaska's shrillest wolf-control advocate, Dick Bishop.
When I asked if I might question him about the council, he glared at my name tag and stomped off....
Holding court at the top of the circle in the offensive zone, was game-board member, legendary wolf killer, and hardest of hard-liners Roger Huntington. Apprehensively, I pushed my way through the pumpkin patch of orange jackets, tape recorder in hand. "I don't talk to the news media," he muttered. Thus, in less than a day, did I broaden my perspective, learning that in order to constructively exchange ideas with the wolf-control community, you first need to have the right ideas....
Fairbanks -- the national bastion of wolf superstition and much more difficult and expensive to reach than less conservative Anchorage -- was an interesting choice for a summit meeting. Here, in northern reality, the mercury dips regularly to 40 below, plenty cold enough to freeze the bile out of cotton-clad wolf huggers. Unfortunately for the wolf controllers, it was now 25 above -- five degrees warmer than my backyard, in central Massachusetts.
It wasn't much colder in Minto, the Athabascan Indian village 40 miles west of Fairbanks to which Hickel flew the press so that we might encounter rural residents "subsisting" on wild game. The governor had tried diligently to enlist Native Americans to make it appear that wolf control was largely a humanitarian effort to feed bush-bound minorities....But Alaska's Indians and Eskimos, noticing that wolf control would occur near Alaska's two largest cities instead of their remote villages, weren't buying in....
Minto, too, was an interesting choice. For one thing, it is in the urban-hunting loop, connected by road to Fairbanks. For another, it is atypical among native villages in that it vociferously favors aerial wolf control. (Most of the others prefer to control wolves themselves, both legally and illegally.)
We were met by dog team at the runway, but Hickel climbed aboard a shiny new truck for the 60-second trip to the village, a village featuring satellite dishes and log cabins from a Montana prefab outlet. In the school gymnasium, under the electric scoreboard, we were lectured by Peter John, the 94-year-old regional chief of the Athabascans. "You can't trust a wolf," he declared....
It is cultural subsistence coupled with the game-ranching philosophy of Fish and Game's leadership that could eventually -- say in 100 years -- do in Alaska's wolves. "If people want a larger portion of the prey," explains a Fish and Game pamphlet, "the level of predation by wolves and/or bears may have to be reduced." But people always want a larger portion, and there will be more and more people....Overall, Alaskans are reproducing four times faster than other Americans.
In the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, Alaskan wolf controllers were loved and appreciated. They were the Patrons and the wolves were the Nazis; now it's the other way around. Even before Governor Cowper grounded his wolf managers in 1983, the Alaskan public was treating them as if they commanded Stalag 13. Instead of thanking David Kellyhouse, then a wolf manager stationed in Tok, for attempting to requisition a fully automatic weapon for his field work, the public took to calling him Machine Gun Kellyhouse. Nor did his colleagues get any respect or sympathy for knocking down 1,300 wolves, along with one of their own planes when they shot the prop off in midflight. Whatever happened?
What happened was that most Alaskans...grew up. As wildness faded they came to cherish and understand it. A polling company retained last fall by the Alaska Wildlife Alliance found 74 percent of Alaskans opposed to aerial wolf control. Doubting such a figure, the tourism industry commissioned its own poll and got similar results. A Fish and Game biologist surveyed his fellow employees and found that only 20 percent of the staff in the Anchorage regional office and 25 percent in the Fairbanks office believed that killing wolves would produce a net benefit. Even Alaska's hunters, said by everyone to be the Christian soldiers of wolf control, opposed it 53 percent to 36 percent.
So the real news is not that Alaska is persecuting its wolves in 1993. Never, even when governed by Russia, has it done otherwise. The news is that eight hard-line wolf strafers -- Kellyhouse, Fish and Game deputy commissioner Ron Somerville, and six members of the seven-person Board of Game -- could so brazenly defy the will of Alaska. And that they could seriously believe the rest of the nation would stand by and watch while they degraded our best and biggest ecosystem...