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Wolf expert shares experiences managing wolves in the Yukon

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There probably isn't anyone alive who knows as much about wolves in the Yukon as Bob Hayes.

For 20 years, Hayes was the Yukon's wolf biologist.

Over that time, he and his crews spent months on end tracking individual packs through deep winter snows in an effort to better understand the controversial predator.

They also helped cull more than 850 wolves during those years.

Today, he is considered an expert on the kill rate of wolves. Hayes led one of the best scientific studies that evaluated the efficiency of wolf control measures to increase prey populations.

Last week, Hayes shared some of what he learned at a talk at the University of Montana about his new book "Wolves of the Yukon."

While the Yukon isn't Montana, some of the lessons learned there could offer insights on what management challenges this region faces once states begin to manage wolf populations.

Left to their own devices, Hayes said, wolves will keep their favorite prey species - in the Yukon, it's moose - at low population numbers.

Wolves are very efficient at what they do, he said.

And so people interested in hunting moose and caribou in the Yukon have expended a great deal of energy trying to keep wolf numbers in check.

They first tried large-scale poisoning and later helicopter gunning to cut back on wolf populations in an effort to increase opportunities for human hunters.

While it worked short-term, Hayes said as soon as the eradication efforts ceased, wolf numbers jumped and moose and caribou populations declined.

In hindsight - a decade after his retirement - Hayes now believes that widespread aerial control of wolves in the Yukon wilderness is biologically wrong for that part of the world.

He now advocates non-lethal sterilization of wolves as one alternative to killing the animals.

"There's probably been more effort put into wolf management in the Yukon that mining gold," Hayes told the crowd gathered at UM.

Starting in the 1950s, the Yukon Game Branch began an extensive poisoning operation over a huge area in an attempt to reduce wolf numbers. Hayes said it didn't have any impact on the wolf population at all.

"There was maybe 100 wolves killed per year out of 5,000," he said.

In the 1980s, the government began an effort to reduce wolves by shooting them from helicopters. At the same time, Hayes was hired to study the impact on ungulate populations following wolf control operations.

The study included using radio and satellite collars and lots of groundwork.

"We followed wolf packs for a couple months at a time," he said. "We were figuring out what they kill. We found that they had a very high kill rate."

A pack of 10 wolves killed between 40 and 50 moose per winter. A pack of six killed close to 35. A pack of two killed between 25 and 30.

"Even the pairs had a huge kill rate," he said. "A small wolf pack would lose up to 80 percent of a kill to ravens."

While it's common to believe all members of a wolf pack participate in the killing, Hayes said the alfa male and female do the majority of the work.

Wolves focus on the young and the old moose.

"Wolves kill the healthy young up to 3 or 4 years," he said. "Once they get beyond that, moose aren't as vulnerable until around age 10."

The stronger and bigger animals have the best chance to survive.

"I really do think that benefits the prey population," Hayes said. "When we hunt, we're actually changing the natural system. We have to be careful about trophy hunting because those are the animals that are surviving predation."

Reducing wolf numbers did lead to an increase in moose populations in the Yukon.

In an expensive operation, the government used helicopter gunning to control wolf populations in several areas. Hayes told of one 10,000-square-mile region where wolf numbers were reduced from 250 to 30.

Moose numbers tripled, but it didn't last.

In four years after the government ceased its wolf control efforts, the wolf population was back to 250 animals - and moose numbers were down to pre-control population levels 10 years later.

"In my mind, it wasn't worth it," Hayes said. "It didn't last long enough."

UM wildlife biology professor Mark Hebblewhite spent a decade himself tracking elk, caribou and moose across the wilds of Canada to research wolves and their prey. He was responsible for bringing Hayes to the campus.

There are a lot of differences between Montana and the Yukon. There are similarities, too.

Livestock isn't an issue there. Wolves have been part of people's lives forever.

With a smaller population - there's only about 35,000 people living in a space about the size of Spain - there's opportunity to bring all sides together in less time. A recent wolf management plan took only six months to hammer out.

"We don't have that firsthand knowledge of what it's like to live with wolves here yet," Hebblewhite said. "And there's a big division here: Wolves are either the anti-Christ or angels."

There is plenty of information to be gleaned from Hayes' work, he said.

For instance, if people want to increase ungulate numbers in places where wolves are having an impact, Hayes' studies show that it will take a long-term effort to reduce and then keep wolf numbers in check, Hebblewhite said.

Hayes' science also shows that if wolves are managed at maximum numbers, there will be an impact on their prey.

"It's fantasy to think that it's possible to have wolves recovered at saturation level and see no impacts to ungulates," he said.

When it comes time for Montana to move forward in managing its wolf populations, Hebblewhite said it will be important that good science is practiced along the way.

That's maybe the most important lesson that the Yukon experience has to teach.

As people learned more about wolves and their prey, they became more supportive of management efforts, Hebblewhite said.

The elk study happening in the Bitterroot is a good step forward toward that goal.

"Good science and good biology will help us be open to what the natural system is telling us," Hebblewhite said.

Hayes' book is available at Missoula's Fact and Fiction and the UC Bookstore on the University of Montana campus.

 

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