Alaskan wildlife officials have decided to kill wolves to save caribou. A good policy? Debate and decide.

By Emily Laber

This winter, Alaska residents are debating a controversial plan to kill wolves. The purpose of the plan is to keep the wolves, feared predators of fairy tale fame, from killing caribou and other big-game animals.

These animals are the wolves'natural "prey", or food. But state officials are concerned about a decline in prey populations. Of particular concern is a group of caribou known as the Delta herd, whose numbers have plummeted from 1,000 to 4,000 since 1989.

A combination of poor weather and wolf predation has contributed to the herd's decline, says wildlife biologist Wayne Regelin of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. But wolves are easier to control than the weather.

So last October, the Department of Fish and Game voted to kill wolves living in a 4,500-square-mile area south of Fairbanks. State officials and some licensed hunters can use aircraft to locate the wolves, and then trap, snare, and shoot a total of 150 of them, leaving 50 of the pack alive. The officials aim to keep wolf numbers down for at least the next three years.

ALASKAN SAFARI Proponents of the plan say that boosting caribou and other prey populations by eliminating their predators could give a life to Alaska's $1 billion tourism industry, the state's third largest source of income after oil and fishing. Tourists coming to see Alaska's bountiful caribou, moose, dall sheep, and more would spend their money on businesses that provide Alaskan residents with jobs — hotels, restaurants, cruises, and car rentals.

Big-game hunters also stand to gain. Some hunt to provide food for their families or to sell animal pelts. Others pursue caribou and other wild game for sport.

"There's a real enjoyment in hunting which has nothing to do with the killing element," says D.V. Smith, president of The National Hunters Association. "For some it's an adventure...For others, there's the challenge of it."

But since 1991, Alaskan hunters, who make up 15 percent of the state's population (almost twice the national average) have been prohibited from hunting Delta caribou because of the herd's decline. The ban creates a hardship for hunters, who must now spend time and money traveling by air to remote areas in the north to find game, says Oliver Burris, a wildlife biologist and former president of the Alaska Outdoor Council.

BAD BIOLOGY But opponents of the wolf-kill plan, including conservationists and many wildlife biologists, are outraged at the notion of killing one species to save another. They call the plan a barbaric attempt to control Mother Nature. "It's just poor biology," says wildlife scientist Gordon Haber, who has studied Alaska's wilderness for the last 28 years.

For one thing, says Haber, the state is mistaken in thinking that wolves "harm" caribou numbers. Like other predators, he says, wolves do not hunt their prey to the brink of extinction. If they did, they would have nothing to eat. Instead, he says, when caribou numbers decrease, wolves respond by breeding less. With fewer wolves around, the caribou rebound — naturally.

Predators can even have a "positive" effect on their prey, continues Haber. "Predation keeps prey populations well below their "habitat limits," the population size their habitat can reasonably support, he says. "So [the prey] don't end up starving," he adds. Disturbing this balance can have disastrous consequences for both predator and prey, he says.

Case in point: the wolves and elk of Yellowstone National Park. As part of a nationwide wolf-extermination plan launched by the federal government in the 1870s, wolves were virtually eliminated from the Yellowstone area. After this major predator disappeared, Yellowstone's elk herds grew to record size. In recent years, there has not been enough food for these animals within the park's boundaries; hundreds of elk have died. (Ironically, Haber points out, while Alaska prepares to kill wolves, the U.S. government is considering a plan to reintroduce them into Yellowstone, see SW 2/8/91, p. 2)

NUMBERS GAME Perhaps the most misleading part of the wolf-kill plan, says Haber, is the notion that caribou numbers are dangerously low. Virtually all of Alaska's caribou belong to a single, growing population, he says. Their numbers fluctuate as they shift feeding grounds. Despite the decline of the Delta herd, the number of caribou statewide has tripled during the last 15 years to more than a million animals.

Wolves, on the other hand, are not nearly so well-off, says Haber. They are already extinct or endangered in every state except Alaska, which has about 7,000, and Minnesota, which has 1,000. As major predators in the food chain and proud symbols of the wilderness, they too deserve to be preserved, he says.

Many wildlife conservation groups agree. To ensure security for Alaska's wolves and caribou, some propose to boycott tourism in Alaska unless the wolf-kill plan is revoked.

What do you think: Should the wolfhunt go ahead as planned? You can take your opinions to the top by writing to:

Governor Walter J. Hickel P.O. Box 110001 Juneau, Alaska 99811

This article originally appeared in Scholastic's Science World, Jan. 14, 1994.