FAIRBANKS — The Alaska Department of Fish and Game pulled the trigger on another Interior wolf reduction program during the weekend.

Wildlife biologists from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on Saturday began shooting wolves from a helicopter around Allakaket and Alatna, a pair of rural villages on the upper Koyukuk River, about 200 miles northwest of Fairbanks.

As of Monday, biologists had killed 15 wolves, according to Fish and Game spokeswoman Cathie Harms. The aim of the program is to provide more moose for the 180 residents in the two villages, she said.

The department had planned to start the program in November, but conditions and legal issues kept it on hold until spring, Harms said.  

Biologists are focusing their efforts on a 1,360-square-mile area around the two villages that is accessible to local hunters. The department is using three fixed-wing aircraft to locate animals and a biologist in a helicopter to shoot the wolves, Harms said. The predator control program was approved by the Alaska Board of Game in March 2012.

The department’s goal is to eliminate all wolves in the area for the next five years to help increase the moose population. The department estimates there are 25 to 50 wolves in the area, which is part of game management unit 24B.

“They’re expecting to take somewhere between 35 and 50 wolves the first year and 15 to 20 wolves a year after that,” Harms said.

The moose population in the area is estimated to be approximately 400, which is down from about 2,000 in the early 1990s, according to the department.

The department has put radio-tracking collars on nearly 100 yearling and calf moose in the past year to track survival rates, Harms said.

Residents in Allakaket and Alatna are excited about the project, not only because it should mean more moose meat on their dinner tables but also because they are playing an active role in the program by skinning the dead wolves and preparing the hides, according to village second chief P.J. Simon.

At the request of the two villages, Fish and Game is turning the dead wolves over to local residents for use as gifts for memorial potlatches in both villages, as well as other villages on the upper Koyukuk River, Simon said.

“It’s a big part of our culture to have wolves at memorial potlaches,” he said. “The wolf is a powerful animal.”

Turning the dead wolves over to the local villages is unique to the program on the upper Koyukuk, Harms said. Normally, Fish and Game sells the hides at fur auctions in Anchorage or Fairbanks.

“The decision to have local people handle the wolves was in response to strong cultural concerns about how wolves are handled,” she said. “Basically we are putting the wolves into their hands to do what they do.”

Simon and other villagers spent the whole day at the village airport on Sunday skinning the dead wolves. They taught youths in the village the proper way to skin a wolf and listened to elders tell stories about wolves, Simon said.

“We’re skinning them and disposing of carcasses in traditional Koyukuk Athabascan manner,” he said. “We skin them, cut all the joints, put some food in their jaws, burn the food, dismember the wolf and bring it back out to the forest.

“We give them back to the land,” Simon said. “We’re really traditional up here on the upper Koyukuk River.”

The upper Koyukuk predator control program is the second program Fish and Game has initiated to increase moose and caribou populations in the Interior that employ helicopters to shoot wolves.  Since 2008, biologists have killed 155 wolves in the upper Yukon/Tanana valleys east of Tok to bolster the Fortymile Caribou Herd.

The program on the upper Koyukuk River won’t last more than about a week because the helicopter and planes being used are needed for the upper Yukon/Tanana program, Harms said.

Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.

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