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.

Why do Sarah Palin and her Alaskan neighbors want to shoot their wolves?
My guess is the areas where they want to aerial hunt and cull wolves are areas where rural residents are saying "We used to have more moose, we used to have more caribou."

They want caribou and moose to eat, and predators can be their direct competition. It really is that simple. You'll find lots of scientific studies driven by data that show you can increase prey populations by shooting predators. You can look at the habitat and say that a range could support three moose per square mile, yet we have less than one. It's a no-brainer really.

Wolves, however, aren't necessarily the big problem. Bears can be a bigger issue than wolves when it comes to the survival of moose young.

Bears? Why aren't people shooting bears from planes?
The whole predator control focus seems to be aimed at wolves from a general standpoint. I'm not sure that's always appropriate.

Bears are held to a different standard. You have to hire a guide to hunt a bear if you are a nonresident—it's a big business in Alaska. They are also less visible. Wolves exist in packs. They howl at night when they are hunting. When I'm out moose hunting in the Alaska range, I hear wolves but not the bears. Bears are a very good predator. They are very smart and capable. They are omnivores, which is one reason they don't get as much attention. Black bears and grizzly bears know when the fawn crop hits the ground. They kill a lot of moose calves. Studies have shown that bears are as big or a bigger issue for moose in south central Alaska.

Wolves are more tied to caribou. When a caribou calf hits the ground, its up and running. If you've ever seen the Planet Earth videos, you'll see a wolf chasing a three-week old caribou calf for miles on end. The little sucker can run. A bear can't catch them. Moose calves have a "hider" strategy. They hide in the vegetation, and that makes them susceptible to bears.

That's why I find it very interesting that people want to increase moose populations, but they talk about culling wolves. I've questioned that myself.  It doesn't have to do with science, it's just the way it is.

So it might make sense to kill wolves if managers were just interested in boosting caribou populations?
It's actually possible that culling the wolf colony on the North Slope of Alaska created conditions that gave rise to the caribou now called the Central Arctic Herd. They didn't used to exist until wolves were moved from that area. Wolves and caribou calving grounds don't mix. Wolves exhibit surplus killing behavior. They kill every calf they find, even if they don't eat them.

Alaska had an aerial wolf eradication campaign in the 1950s; the oil fields came in with exploration in the 1960s, and then the government established the native village of Nuiqsut in the 1970s. This reduced the wolf population on the North Slope to the point where all of the sudden it became feasible for it to be a caribou calving ground. It's speculation, but it's very interesting.

But caribou herds also migrate: They come and go in space and time in very big ways. You can manage them but they are certainly a lot less manageable than moose populations.