The Alaska Board of Game has voted to reduce the overall harvest of the Alexander Archipelago wolf on Prince of Wales Island just as the federal government considers a petition to list the wolf under the Endangered Species Act. Board members dropped the guideline harvest level from a maximum of 30 percent of the population to 20 percent during their January meeting in Juneau.
The petition was initially filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace, and The Boat Company in 2011. The groups sued last June when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to review the petition in a timely manner. After that suit was settled in September, Fish and Wildlife agreed to wrap up the preliminary review at the end of 2015.
The Prince of Wales Island wolf population was recently estimated at 221 wolves. There were an estimated 356 wolves in 1994 and 345 wolves in 2003, but those earlier estimates rely on a different type of modeling that is no longer used by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. It’s still uncertain whether initial estimates generated an inflated figure or if the latest count underestimated the population.
Wolf trapping and hunting on Prince of Wales Island was closed by emergency order in 2013 when the guideline harvest level was exceeded with the taking of 60 wolves. Generally, trappers account for 75 percent of the wolf harvest on the island while hunters take the rest.
Bruce Dale, acting director of ADF&G’s Division of Wildlife Conservation, said populations can be sustainable with as much as a 29 percent harvest. But he said they decided to propose a more conservative harvest rate that included possible unreported human mortality.
Dale said the ESA review will focus on several criteria, including over-utilization of the resource for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes. It will also determine whether existing regulations are sufficiently adequate to protect the population.
“Those are two things that this board can do something about,” Dale said. “We can ensure and create regulations that there is no overutilization. And, we can make sure the regulatory mechanism, the actual regulations, is adequate to protect it.”
But during public testimony that occurred earlier in the Board of Game meeting, Larry Edwards of Greenpeace said ADF&G’s proposal would not go far enough to protect the population at sustainable levels if illegal take and natural mortality are also included in those calculations.
It would very likely be able to harvest in well excess of 40 percent annually of the estimated population, assuming you can even estimate the population,” Edwards said.
Juneau’s Ron Somerville of the Alaska Outdoor Council suggested the category of unreported harvest was not an accurate way to describe some wolf deaths. The term of unreported mortality would better reflect instances of wolves escaping after being shot by a small-caliber rifle and later succumbing in the field without being recovered by the hunter.
Somerville also reminded board members about potential interpretation of the starkly different results in previous population surveys.
Use of that information out in the public is going to justify exactly what you’re concerned about, and that is how it is going to impact ESA,” Somerville said.
Matt Robus of the Juneau-based Territorial Sportsmen, Inc. suggested that adjusting the upper harvest limit in regulation was unnecessary.
“We think that the Department currently has the authority to manage that harvest at a level that is wise without having to change regulations formally,” Robus said.
Before formally approving the 20 percent maximum harvest guideline, board members briefly considered a lower 15 percent guideline before ultimately rejecting it.
A proposed regulation that count against a hunter’s bag limit for reporting every wounded wolf was deleted. But ADF&G says they have the cooperation of trappers who will report wounded wolves which may escape a trap.
Board members rejected another proposal that would impose a personal bag limit on wolf trappers on POW, and another that would also consider illegal harvest, wounding loss, and elevated natural mortality in the harvest guideline calculations. That proposal was submitted by the Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace, and The Boat Company, the groups that pressed U.S. Fish and Wildlife into the reviewing the wolf’s status under ESA.
But board chairman Ted Spraker said that coming up with those additional numbers on mortality would be difficult at best.
“Trying to determine the human cause mortality, I think, that would just be impossible unless you radio-collared every wolf in the country and followed it,” Spraker said. “That would be a daunting task.”
January’s meeting of the Board of Game in Juneau was the only Southeast regional meeting in its two year cycle.
The Board will focus on Southcentral hunting proposals when it meets next month in Wasilla. Although, board members may clarify statewide regulations on what hunters can legally do while pursuing wounded game.