Palin and the Wolves

Canis lupus, the gray wolf, is the center of even more debate. In the late 1980’s and into the 90’s, the wolf population was restored in the Rocky Mountains in Yellowstone National Park through a controvesial process of live-trapping in Canada and relocating. This was highly debated and fought mostly by ranchers and farmers in the area who feared for the lives of their cattle. Now, in the year 2008, the population of wolves has gone up to over 1000 across three states from almost zero.

But the trouble now is in Alaska, where the population of wolves is relatively high, at 7,700-11,200. There is a wolf control program that exists in the state, allowing citizens to receive a license to hunt the animals. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game:

Wolves and bears are very effective and efficient predators on caribou, moose, deer and other wildlife. In most of Alaska, humans also rely on the same species for food. In Alaska’s Interior, predators kill more than 80 percent of the moose and caribou that die during an average year, while humans kill less than 10 percent. In most of the state, predation holds prey populations at levels far below what could be supported by the habitat in the area. Predation is an important part of the ecosystem, and all ADF&G wolf management programs, including control programs, are designed to sustain wolf populations in the future.

The Alaska Board of Game approves wildlife regulations through a public participation process. When the Board determines that people need more moose and/or caribou in a particular area, and restrictions on hunting aren’t enough to allow prey populations to increase, predator control programs may be needed. Wolf hunting and trapping rarely reduces wolf numbers enough to increase prey numbers or harvests.

Currently, five wolf control programs are underway that comprises about 9.4% of Alaska’s land area. The programs use a closely controlled permit system allowing aerial or same day airborne methods to remove wolves in designated areas. In these areas, wolf numbers will be temporarily reduced, but wolves will not be permanently eliminated from any area. Successful programs allow humans to take more moose, and healthy populations of wolves to continue to thrive in Alaska.

Now a group called Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund, with actor Ashley Judd as their figurehead, has launched a campaign including a television ad attacking Sarah Palin and her stance on the program.

According to the group, Palin is attempting to pass legislation in increase the program’s limits, allowing for more hunting of wolves and bears. Palin’s background on environmental and wildlife issues tends to paint a picture of a woman who has little care for the world around her. She was well known for her stance on drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge(ANWR) and also sued the US government to stop the listing of the polar bear on the endangered species list. Just recently, she suggested that she would sue the government yet again to remove the beluga whale from the endangered species list in Alaska’s Cook Inlet. It is not beyond resoning that she would be opposed to any action to save the gray wolf, but this is what she said in response to the ad:

It is reprehensible and hypocritical that the Defenders of Wildlife would use Alaska and my administration as a fundraising tool to deceive Americans into parting with their hard-earned money.”

The ad campaign by this extreme fringe group, as Alaskans have witnessed over the last several years, distorts the facts about Alaska’s wildlife management programs. Alaskans depend on wildlife for food and cultural practices which can’t be sustained when predators are allowed to decimate moose and caribou populations. Our predator control programs are scientific and successful at protecting vulnerable wildlife. These audacious fundraising attempts misrepresent what goes on in Alaska, and I encourage people to learn the facts about Alaska’s positive record of managing wildlife for abundance.”

Shame on the Defenders of Wildlife for twisting the truth in an effort to raise funds from innocent and hard-pressed Americans struggling with these rough economic times.”

From Reuters

Now that you have the background, here’s what I think. Being a biologist and having my background in environmental and ecological biology, I’ve done my fair share of study of gray wolves. The wolves act as an apex preditor, meaning that through their predations, all other organisms sharing the same environment are affected in some way. The wolves check the caribou and moose populations, slowing the browsing of new growth of plants, thus letting them grow larger and thicker. This in turn increases the numbers of birds in an area by providing more nesting and more food through insect increases. This sort of cascade happens all across the food web of which wolves sit in the center. I do believe that the ADFG is taking a scientific stance in its  wolf control program. Most likely if the wolf population stayed where it is, food could become limited and the wolves would die of starvation. Such is the way the biological world works.

That being said, the aerial hunting methods, the proposed bounty for the forelegs of the animals, and the idea of running a “propaganda campaign” to increase hunting seem vile to me. If one chooses to hunt a wolf, it should be performed just like deer hunting, with a gun and your own two legs. Wolves do not attack humans frequently, and in the last 40 years only 22 attacks have been recorded in North America (International Wolf Center), thus if the use of helicopters and low-flying planes is for safety, the claim is mostly groundless. The idea of a propaganda campaign and a bounty sounds a bit along the lines of the programs that led to the near extinction of the wolves in Yellowstone. Overall, I do not agree with the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund that any hunting of wolves is a terrible thing, but I also do not agree with Alaska’s methods of killing the animals. We mustn’t push science away, and I’m afraid that this is just what Sarah Palin would like to do. Anything done after an analytical review of the data available is better than running blindly into it.