Wolf Wars

Alaska’s Republican governors find vicious ways to kill predators and mark their territory with the feds.

National Park Service biologist John Burch with the Lost Creek wolves
National Park Service biologist John Burch with the Lost Creek wolves.

Courtesy of John Burch

John Burch spent 20 years studying a family of 11 wolves. Then one day last winter, the entire pack was shot dead.

The wolves were called the Lost Creek pack, and they’d carved out a territory along the border of Yukon–Charley Rivers National Preserve, deep in the Alaskan interior. Burch, a National Park Service biologist, had been using radio collars to follow the wolves as they hunted caribou, mated, and raised pups, mostly within the boundaries of the 2.5 million–acre preserve of boreal forest, open tundra, and massive river valleys east of Fairbanks. As long as the wolves stayed inside Yukon–Charley, they were relatively safe. Cross the preserve’s invisible border, though, and they were running for their lives.

That’s because Yukon–Charley abuts one of Alaska’s “predator control” units, where state agencies kill wolves and bears to boost populations of moose, caribou, and other animals that people eat. In February, after the Lost Creek pack loped past the border of Yukon–Charley, state biologists shot all 11 wolves from a helicopter, wiping out 20 years of research in a single day. Had it been a few years earlier, the state agents charged with predator control would’ve seen Burch’s radio collars and spared at least some of the Lost Creek pack.  But no longer, Burch says: “There’s no negotiations anymore. They kill almost all the wolves they can find. These last two winters they’ve pretty well gotten most of them.”

As harsh as it can seem, many Alaskans defend predator control, arguing that environmentalists from the Lower 48 who’ve squandered their own wilderness for interstates and strip malls don’t understand how important it is for Alaskan families to be able to shoot a caribou or moose. In many ways, they’re right: With a box of cereal costing as much as $14 and a gallon of milk $10, getting through a winter in rural Alaska often depends on successful hunting, which in turn depends on healthy caribou herds.

State law requires wildlife managers to maintain high populations of game animals like caribou. When the law went into effect in 1994, Democrat Tony Knowles was governor, and he carried it out through nonlethal (but expensive) methods like sterilizing female wolves and relocating packs from places where food security was most important to people. But under the state’s past three Republican governors, predator control has been ramped up, and relations between state and federal wildlife agencies have broken down.

It started in 2002, when Republican Frank Murkowski took office. One of Murkowski’s first actions was to revamp the Alaska Board of Game, the body responsible for most wildlife decisions. Before long, the new board allowed state agents and hunters to gun down wolves and bears from the air. And in places like Yukon–Charley, where the National Park Service prohibits predator control, the board instead tried to increase bag limits and extend wolf and coyote season to months when the animals have pups in tow.

During the tenures of the next two Republican governors—Sarah Palin and Sean Parnell—predator control grew even more intense. The board eliminated a122-square-mile buffer protecting wolves around Denali National Park, allowed hunters to bait bears with doughnuts and bacon grease, and approved “spotlighting,” or using a bright light to rouse black bears from their dens to shoot them as they emerge. “There’s been a focused effort to dramatically reduce populations of wolves, coyotes, and bears,” says Knowles. “And the methods and means they’ve used are both unscientific and unethical.”

Though the state’s tactics have little chance of actually endangering Alaska’s bear or wolf populations as a whole, they’re essentially a big middle finger to the feds. Hunting is allowed in Alaska’s national preserves, but blatantly manipulating the balance of predators and prey violates the 1916 Organic Act that created the national park system. So since 2001, the National Park Service has asked the state Board of Game 60 times to exempt hunting practices that unfairly manipulate the predator-prey balance from Alaska’s national preserves. Each time, the board has refused. So again and again, the National Park Service is forced to overrule them.

That doesn’t sit well with Alaskan wildlife officials. Being told how to do their job by the National Park Service offends them about as much as does the Environmental Protection Agency trying to put the kibosh on Pebble Mine, the proposed open-pit copper mine that Gov. Parnell would love to see built in the headwaters of one of the world’s most prolific salmon fisheries. “Federal overreach is nothing new,” says Ted Spraker, chairman of the Alaska Board of Game. “But in the last decade it’s really kicked into high gear.” Killing the Lost Creek wolves was part of a clear message from the Parnell administration: The EPA and the National Park Service aren’t in charge here.

Aerial shot of a pack of Lost Creek wolves
Aerial shot of a pack of Lost Creek wolves.

Courtesy of John Burch

If that all sounds like bad news, sit tight: Three new developments this fall could turn things around. First, in typical plodding bureaucratic fashion, the National Park Service has started fighting back. In September, it proposed a sweeping rule that would ban baiting brown bears, killing wolves and coyotes when they have pups, and killing black bears in their dens in national preserves. It also pre-emptively prohibits any other practice “with the intent or potential to alter or manipulate natural predator-prey dynamics.”

In other words, hunting will still be allowed in national preserves, but no matter who’s in office, the land won’t be managed like a giant game farm. The rule is up for public comment now and will probably be implemented next year.

Meanwhile, the popularity of Parnell—once considered a shoo-in in next week’s gubernatorial election—is dropping; an Oct. 9 poll put him behind independent candidate Bill Walker, 46 to 51 percent. The reason Walker is doing so well is that in August, Democrats dropped their own nominee, Byron Mallott, and threw their full weight behind the independent ticket. Alaska is a notoriously tough place to call a race, but with more than half of voters unaffiliated with a political party, Walker stands a good chance. At this point, it’s unclear whether Walker could improve relations between state and federal officials, but he certainly can’t hurt them. It’s hard to imagine a less environmentally friendly politician than Parnell. (Walker, by the way, believes in climate change and opposes Pebble Mine.)

The most hopeful sign of change, though, comes from a lone, radio-collared male wolf called No. 1308. Earlier this year, John Burch watched in awe as No. 1308 left Denali National Park and wandered 750 miles over to Yukon–Charley, where he proceeded to take up residence in the same territory that had been occupied by a pack killed for predator control. Last month, No. 1308 met up with a lone female wolf, and Burch is hopeful that over the long, dark winter, the two will mate and form a new pack. Whether that pack can stay alive, though, is another story.