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The state of Alaska may no longer loom as large in the American consciousness as it did during the presidential election, but enviros won't let us forget failed GOP veep candidate Gov. Sarah Palin's support for aerial wolf hunting. Conservation watchdog Defenders of Wildlife this week launched the Eye on Palin Web site to spotlight the moose-hunting Alaska chief exec's "Anti-Wolf, Anti-Wildlife Agenda".
"I am outraged by Sarah Palin's promotion of this cruel, unscientific and senseless practice, which has no place in modern America," actress and animal activist Ashley Judd said in a press release. "Because she is apparently determined to continue and expand this horrific program, I am grateful that Defenders will aggressively fight to stop her. I am proud to be a part of that effort."
Palin took the attack as an affront to her state's livelihood.
"Alaskans depend on wildlife for food and cultural practices which can't be sustained when predators are allowed to decimate moose and caribou populations," she said in a statement, "Our predator-control programs are scientific and successful at protecting vulnerable wildlife.
According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, predators kill more than 80 percent of the moose and caribou that die there in a given year. To keep predator populations in check, the state currently has five wolf-control programs covering about 9.4 percent of the state's land area. "Successful programs allow humans to take more moose," its Web site claims, "and healthy populations of wolves continue to thrive in Alaska."
The agency lumps bears and wolves together as "effective and efficient predators of caribou, moose, deer and other wildlife," but it fails to explain why only wolves are targeted—or exactly how the predators affect moose, the most sought after big game animal in Alaska.
To find out more, we asked Shawn Haskell, a wildlife biologist at the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department in Saint Johnsbury, who has studied caribou and wolf populations in Alaska and now manages Vermont deer populations.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
Why do we need to manage wildlife populations?
We are humans, and we have existed for hundreds of thousands of years as just a small part of nature—but in the past couple hundred years we've become a large part of nature. We influence nature simply by existing. That's the reason wildlife management is now necessary to conserve the wildlife populations we affect.
How do biologists determine if a population needs to be culled?
First, there's the biological carrying capacity. Animals, including humans—though we don't always recognize it—sometimes become too numerous for their own good. That's when they eat themselves out of house and home: Their body condition goes down, reproductive rates go down, and fawns and calves starve to death during their first week of life because their dams [mothers] have no milk.
Then, there's what we call cultural carrying capacity, when animal populations become too numerous or too few for human liking. Deer become too many when they are eating your gardens excessively, and you're hitting them with your cars excessively. They become too few when you can't find any to hunt. So, there's a happy medium somewhere from a cultural perspective.