The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is considering allowing the State of Alaska to shoot and kill adult wolves from helicopters within the Unimak Wilderness beginning this spring. If the state’s proposed action is selected, pups could also be gassed in their dens. According to the FWS’s environmental assessment (EA), the purpose for killing wolves is to increase the number of caribou for subsistence hunting.
The caribou population has declined recently. Causes for the decline are not known, although caribou numbers on the island have significantly fluctuated in the past. Unimak Island, part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, lies just off the tip of the Alaska Peninsula and is the largest and easternmost island of the Aleutian island chain. Ninety eight percent of the island (910,000 acres) is wilderness. The only human community on the island is the village of False Pass (pop. 54).
According to subsistence studies, local hunters primarily hunt caribou from the nearby Southern Alaska Peninsula herd— more easily accessible by boat. All reported harvest of the Unimak herd since 1999 has been by non-local Alaska residents and non-residents. The vast majority of hunting is done through two commercial guide services and is focused on killing trophy bulls.
The EA reports caribou numbers fluctuating from an estimated 7,000 in 1925 to about 400 now. The herd was estimated at 1,200 caribou in 2001 when the State of Alaska initiated its hunting program. Several times in the past 80 years the herd has been much smaller than now including years when no caribou were found, so this cycle does not seem atypical. The EA acknowledges a lack of assessment of caribou habit and forage on Unimak Island, but studies on the nearby Alaska Peninsula showed lichens, an important caribou food source, depleted and a likely cause of low caribou birth/survival rates and population decline. Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates about 20 to 30 wolves on Unimak Island, however the population experiences periodic rabies epidemics.
Fish and Wildlife Service has not picked a preferred alternative, but the state’s proposed action calls for the extermination of all wolves found in areas where caribou are located at calving time in May. If lactating females are killed, AGFD will search for and gas wolf pups in their dens. An intensive study of caribou calf mortality will be initiated and will include capture and radio collaring. The study will also require helicopters to deploy transmitters and access mortality sites, and use fixed-wing aircraft and temporary field camps.
This action will violate the fundamental principles of the Wilderness Act by allowing human intervention into the natural processes at work in the Unimak Wilderness. If approved, it will set a terrible precedent for predator control on National Wildlife Refuges and designated Wilderness elsewhere in Alaska. This project will also rely heavily on aircraft use, further degrading the area’s wilderness character.
(Previously in Alaska, wolf “control” –which has subjected Alaska to considerable public wrath and outrage — has been happening on state lands, not federal lands. However, the state apparently thinks it can do “business as usual” on federal lands too — and wilderness at that! Please let the Fish & Wildlife Service know this is NOT acceptable.)
Write by Mon., Jan. 31.
The Environmental Assessment is available at the Forest Service web site.
Some talking points to consider:
• Support the “no action” alternative, which would maintain the untrammeled, wild character of the Unimak Wilderness and allow natural ecological processes to continue.
• Killing wolves to attempt to artificially boost caribou numbers is completely unacceptable in a National Wildlife Refuge Wilderness. Killing females and gassing their pups in their dens is entirely unacceptable.
• Helicopter use is extremely intrusive and has no place in Wilderness stewardship. It is also prohibited by law except in very rare circumstances. No helicopter use should be allowed as part of this project even if alternatives for wolf killing are pursued.
• The goal of increasing caribou numbers for subsistence hunting is at odds with the reality that subsistence hunters don’t hunt here. All caribou killed in the past decade were killed by non-local and non-resident hunters, most of whom were commercially guided trophy hunters.
• The EA lacks scientific evidence to support FWS’s proposed action. Essentially nothing is known about the condition of the habitat or the numerous other possible causes for the herd’s decline.
• Before any further consideration is given to this proposal, a full environmental impact statement must be prepared to assess the numerous factors impacting the herd.
Send comments by January 31, 2011 to:
Gap Solutions, Inc.
Unimak Caribou Herd Environmental Assessment
Pocatello, ID 83206-2026.
(Adapted from an alert originally sent out by Wilderness Watch.)