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By SCOTT BOWLEN
Daily News Staff Writer
Alaska’s Board of Game took a step toward a potential wolf control program on Gravina Island recently when it directed the state to prepare an "operational plan" for the board to consider in March.
Meeting Jan. 10-15 in Sitka, the board accepted the feasibility studies completed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game regarding the potential for wolf control programs on Gravina Island and in limited areas near Petersburg to help boost deer populations.
"We believe that this is a project that the department could accomplish and be successful," Board Chair Ted Spraker said Monday.
The next step is for Fish and Game to prepare operational plans for both areas.
According to the department, the operational plans will describe what’s known about the habitat in the areas proposed for predator control, in addition to the populations of predators and deer.
The plans also will outline the information (and the feasibility of gathering the data) that Fish and Game believes is needed to make an "informed decision about how to best to proceed," according to the department.
Spraker said the plans also will include information on potential budgets and day-to-day operations for the predator control programs.
Fish and Game is expected to have the operational plans for Gravina Island and a portion of Game Management Unit 3 ready for the board to consider at its March 15-19 meeting in Kenai.
"That will give them about month or so to get more information out to the board," Spraker said. "We'll take public testimony on it, then the board will either adopt ... the operational plan or we'll vote it down."
If approved by the board, the operational plan will go to Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell.
"The commissioner makes the decision of whether or not she's willing to go forward with the plan," Spraker said.
He emphasized that the board has the authority only to authorize predator control programs.
"Then it's up the commissioner to actually have the department do things, whether it’s predator control or whatever," he said.
Spraker said the soonest a wolf-control program could occur is probably the winter of 2013-14.
The state is considering wolf control programs on Gravina Island and near Petersburg because the estimated deer populations and harvests are below objectives set by the Board of Game in 2000. The objectives were set in accordance with the state’s 1994 "intensive management" that requires the board to identify populations of deer, moose and other hooved species that are important sources of food for Alaskans, according to Fish and Game information.
For Unit 1A, which includes the Ketchikan area, the board set population and annual harvest objectives of 15,000 deer and 700 deer, respectively.
Precise estimates of the overall population aren’t available, but Fish and Game believes the Unit 1A deer population is "well below" the 15,000-deer objective. The department also estimates that Unit 1A deer harvests have averaged 231 animals during the past five years.
The Board of Game has acted to provide ways to meet the population and harvest objectives. Those actions included a 2008 bag-limit reduction in part of Cleveland Peninsula from four bucks to two bucks, and the 2010 cut of the Unit 1A hunting season by one month to Aug. 1-Nov. 30.
Other actions the board could consider for meeting the objectives are reducing or eliminating hunting by residents or non-residents, loosening hunting and trapping rules regarding wolves and bears, and habitat improvement projects.
"If these actions do not (or are unlikely) to achieve the (intensive management) population and harvest objectives, the Board of Game may consider predator control," according to Fish and Game information.
Fish and Game estimates that deer harvests on Gravina Island have averaged 74 animals a year during the past 20 years, ranging from a high of 180 in 1998 to an average of 10 deer annually during 2007-09.
The estimated number of hunters on Gravina have dropped also, sliding from 248 in 2001 to an average of 65 during 2007-09.
Written public comments received by the board ahead of the Sitka meeting were solidly against the proposals.
Spraker said there was a lot of good discussion on both sides of the issue at the board meeting.
"We have people concerned about removing wolves; we had some people concerned about low numbers of deer," he said, "There was a lot of concern about the weather, how it related to old growth and removal. We had a lot of good discussion on both sides of the issue."
Spraker said he read the feasibility reports very carefully, and noted that he’s been involved in a lot of predator control programs.
"I think it has a reasonable chance of being successful, mainly because they're talking about such a small area and such a low number of wolves," Spraker said.
The most recent department estimate pegs the number of wolves on Gravina Island at between 10 to 14 animals.
The department’s feasibility studied envisioned hiring two experienced trappers to eliminate all of the wolves from Gravina Island and maintaining the program over a six-year period.
"If they were talking about a huge area and numberous packs of wolves, and only using trapping as a method, I would have been a lot more skeptical and less supportive of the program," Spraker said, "But because it's on a small scale and I know that there are some very skilled trappers in Southeast, ... I think if the right people are put in place, I think they could be successful in reducing the numbers of wolves."
Conservation groups were among those who have weighed in against the predator control proposals, citing deer habitat lost to logging, other factors affecting deer numbers, and changes in deer population estimates that indicate the board’s population and harvest objectives were set too high based on inaccurate information.
"We would like to request that (the Board of Game) work with the Department of Fish and Game to continue to assess the variety of factors that affect deer population declines in specific affected wildlife analysis areas prior to developing a formal intensive management proposal," Paul Olson of the Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community said during testimony before the board during the Sitka meeting. "In particular, we would like to see further analysis that revisits habitat loss and revisits deer population objectives and harvest objectives in light of past, present and future habitat loss caused primarily in the affected game management unit areas by the federal timber sales program."