Fighting Back for Wolves of Unimak Island

Alaska plan to kill wolves on federal land rejected

by Heidi Ridgley

Unimak Island, © Thomas J. Abercrombie / National Geographic Stock

© Thomas J. Abercrombie /
National Geographic Stock
Wolves always seem to get the short end of the stick in Alaska, where politicians often shoot first without even bothering to ask questions later. But that wasn’t the case this time.

State officials, pushing to cull even more wolves, trained their sights on half the 15 to 30 wolves on Unimak Island—part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge—to boost caribou numbers for hunters. But in March, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) decided it wouldn’t go along with the plan, opting instead to devote further study to the underlying causes of the Unimak caribou decline. Located in the Aleutian Islands off Alaska’s southwest coast, Unimak is the only island in the chain with naturally occurring populations of caribou, brown bears and wolves.

"Each time wolves are killed prematurely, before scientists can determine whether a decline in moose or caribou is part of the natural cycle, we deny ourselves the ability to truly understand the heart of the problem,” says Theresa Fiorino, Defenders’ Alaska representative. “By taking this measured, comprehensive view, we are far more likely to solve long-term conservation challenges.”

Killing wolves to increase the number of caribou for hunting also ignores one of the primary purposes of a national wildlife refuge—to conserve natural diversity.

After reviewing the reasons behind the plan to kill Unimak’s wolves and determining they were scientifically unjustified, Defenders pushed for FWS to conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement before the agency took action. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s draft assessment showed that the island’s caribou numbers change periodically—meaning the current decline in caribou could be caused by a natural population fluctuation unrelated to wolf predation.

“Scientists know that meddling in the complex balance between predators and prey can actually exacerbate problems,” says Fiorino. “When wildlife management is guided by sound science, everybody wins in the long term.”

More Articles from Summer 2011

“As a photographer, I learned a long time ago to get in touch with my feminine side,” says photographer Jim Chagares, whose sensitive portrait of an Alaskan brown bear nursing her cubs struck a chord with our readers and won the grand prize in Defenders of Wildlife’s 2011 photography contest.
One of the world’s most far-sighted environmental laws took a serious beating in April when Congress and President Obama quietly stripped federal protections for wolves in the Northern Rockies.
For those who had hoped Barack Obama’s election would result in conservation initiatives that finally restore protections for imperiled wildlife and natural ecosystems, the results have been seriously disappointing.
Clean up from the largest human-caused environmental disaster in U.S. history in the Gulf of Mexico last year isn’t close to over.
Endangered Cook Inlet belugas finally have something to smile about: the long-awaited designation of more than 3,000 square miles of critical habitat that scientists deem essential to their survival.
Yellowstone bison that search for food across park boundaries during harsh winter months are typically hazed back into the park or captured and sent to slaughter.
When the weather warms, Vitro Hilton, like so many of us, can’t wait to get his grill on. A vegetarian, he already has come a long way in reducing his carbon footprint.

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