Moose Rebuilding Program Includes Wolf Control

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The Alaska Department of Fish & Game will begin efforts to rebuild moose populations by issuing permits to the public to use airplanes this winter to reduce the number of wolves in areas around McGrath and Glennallen.

The announcement came Tuesday after the Alaska Board of Game authorized issuance of the permits in areas where moose are necessary sources of food for people.

"It has been a long and difficult journey to reach this day," said Board of Game Chairman Mike Fleagle who lives in the McGrath area, "But I'm gratified that the process worked."

"This is part of an important management program to increase moose populations to meet local needs," said Matt Robus, director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation.

People seeking permits will be required to submit applications detailing their qualifications for low-altitude flying and knowledge of local geography. The requirements are expected to limit the pool of prospective permittees mostly to residents living in and near the control areas.

"It's important that the programs are effective, humane and that pilots are as safe as possible," said Robus. "To do that, we need to have qualified pilots involved."

The permits are the outgrowth of a long, complicated regulatory process. Several wolf control plans have been developed over the years, but this will be the first time in nearly a decade that any has been put into effect that allow the use of aircraft.

Wolf control will take place only on state land, and involve about one and one half percent of Alaska's land mass.

The Board of Game has implemented a series of incremental steps to reduce wolf and bear numbers in both areas, while simultaneously reducing moose hunting over the years. But none of the steps has been sufficient to allow moose numbers to increase. The Board concluded Tuesday that the use of aircraft is the only effective way to reduce wolf numbers adequately.

Because of thick vegetation, permittees in the McGrath area will be allowed to either shoot wolves from the air or to land and shoot. In the more sparsely vegetated areas around Glennallen, pilots will have to land their planes, get out and shoot.

In both areas, wolves have been identified by department biologists as a limiting factor preventing the restoration of moose populations. Bears are also a major predator, especially on moose calves.

Nearly a decade ago, the residents of the McGrath area informed the Board of Game that they could not take enough moose to meet their needs for food. They need 130-150 moose per year, and since the late 1990s have been able to harvest only 60-90.

Extensive research in the area in the last three years has demonstrated that the number of moose calves born each year equals the number of moose calves and adults killed by predators. Thus the moose population cannot increase.

This past spring department staff relocated more than 80 bears from the moose calving grounds to reduce predation on calves during the time calves are most vulnerable. As of September of this year, 64% of the radiocollared calves were still alive. In the two years prior to bear removal, only 26-33% of calves survived to one year of age. Because more calves are present than in past years, reducing wolf numbers now could help more calves survive to adulthood and help the population increase.

The control effort will focus on a small area along the Kuskokwim River and is expected to be short in duration. At the conclusion of the control program, local hunting and trapping efforts will be needed to maintain growth of the moose population.

In the Glennallen area, hunters used to take more than 1,000 moose each hunting season. Now they take less than half that many. Meanwhile, wolves killed an estimated 4,500 moose last year.

The habitat in the Nelchina Basin will support more moose. Pregnancy and twinning rates are high, calves are produced but 70-90 percent of them are dead in less than five months after they are born. Predation by bears and wolves in the reason. In the Glennallen area, hunters have been taking record harvests of brown bears to reduce bear numbers, but wolf numbers remain high.