Fairbanks, Alaska — From meat on the table to tracks in the backyard snow, the moose is a very tangible presence in this state. The wolf, on the other hand, is more elusive and probably sighted more often in controversial headlines than out in the wilderness. But the two are inextricably tied to an annual controversy that highlights the extremes of Alaskan environmentalism -- those who like the wilderness managed for man's benefit and those who prefer nature to take its course.
Here on the nation's last frontier, environmental questions faced by generations of American pioneers have become less issues of survival and more of a biological and political debate. Are wolves a serious competitor with man for ungulate (hooved) prey? Is it right for man to even the odds by thinning out the wolf population? And if so, what is the ethical way to do it?
The state Department of Fish and Game's wolf predation control program answers the first two questions. Normal sport hunting of the wolf is supplemented by state Fish and Game Department wolf hunting to thin the population. But the state's hunting method has been aerial tracking and shooting. And now, the tracking by radio signals of wolves collared for biological research, has provided this year's biggest controversy.
Early on this winter, environmental groups were able to get the Federal Communications Commission to ban the use of radio signals for tracking the animals for anything but research -- predation control did not fall under research.
Fish and Game officials say predation control will continue but be less efficient without the radio collars.
``We're not opposed to hunting. But we're opposed to aerial wolfhunts with no purpose other than to reduce natural predators to moose and caribou,'' explains Wayne Hall, director of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, an 800-member environmental group.
He and other groups, like the Sierra Club, call aerial hunting a ``radical'' means of hunting the animals. During the winter it is easy to follow wolf tracks in the snow from the air and to swoop down in airplanes or helicopters to shoot wolves without even landing. It's a method considered unethical as well as illegal for normal sport hunting.
Gauging from the amount of debate and conflicting data on the subject, the relationship of the reclusive wolf to its prey seems poorly understood. The belief that the wolf preys heavily on deer, moose, caribou, and livestock led to the hunting to near extinction of the animal in the Lower 48.
In recent years, the popularity of the movie version of Canadian Farley Mowat's book, ``Never Cry Wolf,'' one man's sympathetic perspective on the wolf, has injected fresh emotion -- but not much scientific fact -- into the subject.
Combinations of tough winters and wolf predation were believed responsible for the drastic drop in Alaskan moose and caribou populations in the late 1960s, explains Dick Bishop, Fairbanks regional supervisor of the state Fish and Game Department.
He says his region has 6,000 to 7,000 moose today compared with a mid-1960s high of 23,000. He notes that during a seven-year period in the Tok area southwest of here moose hunting was prohibited altogether, but the moose population did not increase until wolf hunting was also increased. Whether this was a coincidental or causal relationship is disputed by scientists. In other areas caribou herds have also increased substantially with the increase in wolf kills -- and debate continues too over the reasons for that.
Although each region has different wolf-kill goals, says Mr. Bishop, 26 wolves have been killed so far this year in the 7,000-square-mile region south of here. In a neighboring region, he says, officials expect to take two-thirds, or 50 members of the wolf population this year. In his whole region, Bishop says 400 moose will be legally taken this year while wolves will probably kill another 400, he estimates.
One veteran Fairbanks pilot who has flown Fish and Game Department officials, but asked not to be identified, differs with the department on its estimates of wolf predation. He says he finds it hard to believe there are 400 wolf-killed moose in any year near here. He says the carnage of a wolf-kill of big animals is a highly visible sight from the air on the backdrop of white snow, and it is not something he sees frequently during winter.
``They say wolf control helps bring back enough moose for everybody including the wolves. But they'll never maintain that goal without intensive wolf control year after year forever,'' says Mr. Hall. ``Even if wolf control is necessary, shouldn't you take other measures. . . . If the situation is that bad, why not eliminate hunting?'' he suggests.
``We can't let it balance itself because then all it is is a bunch of peaks and valleys. We ought to manage game for the maximum sustained yield. I don't think any of us want to see the wolf dissappear, but it's a renewable resource,'' explains Dick Burley, a member of the Interior Wildlife Association of Alaska, a hunting group.
``There's no question that the primary emphasis [of wolf hunting] has been for the benefit of people,'' explains Bishop. ``The purpose definitely was to improve the opportunites for people to hunt moose. But if you have more moose, the predators will do better.''