Science may show that killing wolves a big mistake

COMPASS: Other points of view
Published: March 12th, 2011 07:21 PM
Last Modified: March 12th, 2011 07:21 PM

Like a predictable movie, the story of wildlife management in Alaska plays out the same way again and again, with wolves always getting the short end of the stick and the state declaring a victory for caribou, moose and the hunters who hunt them. No nuance or space for appropriate scientific analysis. No consideration for whether the so-called victors would benefit in the long term. But this week, the story line changed.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) decided that rather than killing wolves on Unimak Island, a wilderness area and unit of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, it would instead allow nature to prevail and FWS set in motion a series of studies to deepen our understanding of the island’s complex ecological makeup. Finally, an action applauded by those who value a balanced, informed approach to managing Alaska’s wildlife. For the many who have watched with deep concern at the increasing dominance of politics over science, this FWS decision is welcome and long overdue.

Scientists recognize that when wolves are killed without an understanding of why — or whether — prey populations are dwindling, we deny ourselves the opportunity to address the root cause of any problem. Furthermore, the state’s insistence on controlling predator populations fails to recognize that the ebb and flow of particular prey species is a natural and necessary process for maintaining healthy habitat, which in turn is key to the long-term robustness of the moose and caribou on which people depend.

In the case of Unimak Island, the state had called for the removal of wolves even though very little time had been devoted to investigating the full range of potential causes of the local caribou herd’s decline, or to objectively determining whether various approaches to reversing the decline would actually benefit Unimak caribou in the long run. Disease, weather, availability of food, overharvest and bear predation are all potential causes of decline to which little to no attention was paid in the environmental assessment of the state’s proposal. Even more fundamentally, the environmental assessment dismissed the herd’s documented history of population fluctuations and past reports of caribou migrating between the island and the mainland. The assessment also failed to address whether the proposed actions were appropriate under federal laws and policies.

By deciding to study this ecosystem rather than rush to action, FWS has acknowledged the shortcomings of the environmental assessment and has given hope that future decisions regarding wildlife management on Unimak will be grounded in science. The FWS should be commended for putting science above politics. The service resisted a knee-jerk proposal to kill wolves and instead re-evaluated the negative effects wolf control would have on the natural conditions of the island. Hopefully this will lead to more effective management of the refuge in the future.

It is clear that when science wins, we all win — subsistence hunters, professional guides, conservationists, and last but not least, wildlife. Instead of pursuing quick action, absent adequate data and without considering long-term consequences, for the first time in a long time we have the chance to let science guide wildlife management. Like the best Hollywood movie ending, the conclusion to the Unimak Island story could come as a welcome relief.

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