Aerial survey of Alaska finds few wolves–– and too many moose for habitat

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 1993:

ANCHORAGE, Alaska––Predictions
that wolves and grizzly bears would devastate
Alaskan moose and caribou over the winter were
“a gross exaggeration,” world-renowned
wildlife expert Gordon Haber told media April
26. Thus there is no need for predator control,
contrary to the claims of the Alaska Board of
Game, which suspended a proposed aerial wolf
massacre in January under threat of an interna-
tional tourism boycott, but is expected to re-rec-
commend killing wolves and grizzlies to protect
the ungulates, prized by trophy hunters, at
meetings scheduled for July and October.
To verify their data, Haber and bush
pilot Buck Woods overflew 35,000 square miles
of interior and south-central Alaska between
April 3 and April 18, adding 87 hours of air
time to their combined total of more than 5,000
hours of aerial surveying and more than 10,000
hours of wolf observation. Haber is a 27-year
veteran of wolf research in Alaska, British
Columbia, and northern Michigan.

Flying conditions were ideal, Haber
said, with no recent snow to conceal carcasses.
Nonetheless, the team found only one wolf kill
and only 18 to 20 moose and caribou dead of
any cause. Few of the carcasses had been dis-
turbed by wolves. By contrast, they found eight
wolf carcasses, including the remains of two
who were apparently strafed from aircraft and left to rot.
“Based on tracks and direct observations,” Haber
said, “wolf populations appear to be lower in some areas
than previously claimed.” However, “There appears to be
significant illegal wolf killing in at least some of the pro-
posed wolf control areas,” he continued. Throughout the
survey area, Haber and Woods observed extensive use of
snowmobiles by hunters and trappers, whose noisy vehi-
cles in many cases kept moose and caribou away from the
wetlands that are their preferred habitat.
“We flew every major river system and many
minor creeks in an area larger than the state of Maine,”
Haber recounted, “and I can’t recall more than about six or
seven creeks where we did not see snowmachine tracks. I
don’t mean to impugn snowmachine use in general, but the
sheer number of snowmachines buzzing about the country-
side at speeds of up to 60 or 70 miles per hour creates an
impact on wildlife that is far more extensive than most peo-
ple realize, and this needs to be better controlled.”
Haber’s most contentious finding, however, may
be that moose and caribou herds in the proposed wolf-and-
bear-killing zones are actually about as big now as the habi-
tat permits. The 9,407-square-mile area north of Tok, for
instance, holds an estimated 3,400 to 4,000 moose and
22,000 caribou––the renowned Fortymile herd, which 70
years ago reputedly stretched from horizon to horizon when
on the march. Observers guessed it included 500,000 ani-
mals. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game thinks it
can double the moose herd and triple the caribou herd, just
by halting predation, but as Haber noted, the habitat has
changed immensely since the 1920s. In particular, many of
the swampy late eutrophic lakes favored by moose have
filled in and become overgrown to the point that they no
longer provide good forage.
“Although predation has been cited as the primary
reason for low moose densities in the Fortymile region,”
Haber reported, “the large expanses of poor moose habitat
in this region may be more of a limiting factor than has
been heretofore emphasized.”
Haber further observed that the herd definitions
presumed by Alaskan officials have changed over the years,
as the animals wander in search of habitat. “Segments of
the Delta, Denali, and Nelchina caribou herds appear to
have interacted and mixed or moved erratically into new
range areas this winter, as in the past,” he found, “to the
point where, for example, it would be impossible to guar-
antee a herd size for hunters in a particular sector even with
major wolf control, contrary to what the state has implied
While wolf control grabs most of the public atten-
tion, grizzly bears are in acute danger as well. The Alaska
Board of Game has proposed upping the bear quota for
hunters in Game Management Unit 13, a 23,400-square-
mile area roughly the size of West Virginia, from 83 in
1992 to 125 this year. In 1992 the Department of Fish and
Game put the Unit 13 bear population at 800 to 1,000. This
year, for no apparent reason, it is estimated at 600 to
1,600. As the Alaska Wildlife Alliance points out, the bear
kill is to be upped by 66% even though officials don’t know
within 160% how many bears there are.
The Haber survey was the first phase of a pro-
posed year-long, $100,000 investigation to establish reli-
able data independent of state estimates. Friends of
Animals picked up the $25,000 tab for the first phase of the
investigation by forgoing filling a vacant staff position,
after wealthier organizations declined to take part, but the
budget for the rest still hasn’t been secured. The Alaska
Wildlife Alliance and Wolf Haven International provided
technical support.
The Fund for Animals has done intensive
fundraising around a claim that it led the boycott effort
against the wolf massacre proposed last fall, although its
main involvement, full-page ads in the New York Times
and Washington Post, came weeks after many other groups
threatened a boycott. Asked to help underwrite the Haber
project, Fund national director Wayne Pacelle reportedly
refused, saying he prefered to save resources for further
advertising if and when renewed wolf-killing plans are
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