Alaska Department of Fish and Game
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Wildlife management involves a wide variety of biological and administrative activities. This includes interpreting and applying the findings from state-of-the-art wildlife research, as well as coordinating with other state and federal agencies.
Working primarily out of local area offices, Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) wildlife management biologists collect information on population sizes, trends, productivity, and mortality from hunting and natural causes. They also evaluate wildlife habitat use, assess the interests and needs of various user groups (or constituents), serve as a public contact on wildlife and habitat management issues, sell hunting and trapping licenses, issue harvest tags and permits, make public presentations, handle nuisance and injured wildlife, and perform other important duties. Management biologists compile and analyze harvest and biological information. When presented to the Alaska Board of Game, this information serves as the foundation for establishing ecologically sound population-based hunting and trapping regulations. This same information can be used in other venues to promote conservation strategies and recovery actions.
To meet requirements of federal funding programs and especially the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration program, ADF&G biologists prepare management, harvest, survey and inventory reports, including harvest summaries on hunted species and furbearers for which such funds were spent. Visit the Research Publications page for information on how to access these reports.
Counting wildlife and determining their status is challenging, yet it is vital for maintaining sustainable populations. Demand for hunting and harvest of big game often exceeds the harvestable surplus. The Alaska Board of Game establishes seasons and bag limits for hunted species, and it relies on science-based Division of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) information to help guide its decision-making.
For species like moose, biologists have decades of experience in developing survey techniques that account for important variables like variation in moose density and habitat-dependent differences in sightability. These types of factors require use of sophisticated aerial survey methods and state-of-the-art statistical methods. Populations of other species (especially black bear, brown bear, and Sitka black-tailed deer) are estimated and managed by applying recent advances in DNA methods. Tissue samples are collected using noninvasive techniques (e.g., hair-sampling snares); the DNA is then analyzed to uniquely identify each sampled animal. Mark-recapture statistics are used to estimate abundance.
Radiotelemetry is also widely used in wildlife management. Sometimes it’s as simple as maintaining radiocollars on a sample of caribou, to understand their movements and count them during annual photo censuses. In other cases, DWC staff radiocollar newborn moose or caribou to examine sources of mortality; this includes predation by bears (black and/or brown) and wolves that may be primary limiting factors on low populations.
Some projects focus on the habitats where species such as deer, wolves, wolverines, or bears are located, to evaluate factors such as forest management or the species’ vulnerability to hunting. Global positioning system (GPS) radiocollars are used when highly accurate locations are necessary. On rare occasions, the department has resorted to game transplants or reintroductions as a management tool, but only after extensive study and consultation.
Research shows that predators perform important ecological functions in the natural world, including culling sick and old members of a prey population. Their possible presence in an area keeps prey animals such as grazers vigilant and may keep them away from areas in which predators can lie in wait. This in turn can affect the composition of plant, bird and animal communities in those areas.
Humans have the ability to influence natural systems by reducing predator populations and allowing ungulate (hoofed animal) populations to increase from depressed levels. Whether, when, or how it is appropriate for humans to intensively manage ungulate populations for human harvest and use, including through predator control, is controversial. Predator management has been a contentious wildlife issue in Alaska for decades and controversy is likely to persist, regardless of how much biological information is available. Divergent public opinions are rooted in deeply held values, especially regarding predator control of wolves and bears.
Nineteen species of furbearers are trapped in Alaska: beaver; coyote; arctic fox; red fox; lynx; Alaska and hoary marmot; marten; mink; muskrat; river otter; red, flying, and ground squirrels; least and short-tailed weasel; wolf; wolverine; and woodchuck. Trapping effort is partly a function of pelt value in the fur trade. ADF&G uses aerial sampling techniques to estimate population levels of wolverines, wolves, foxes, and lynx in selected areas. Biologists then extrapolate to estimate population sizes in other areas with similar habitats. Harvest information is collected from fur export and acquisition records, and fur sealing reports for those species for which the law requires "sealing" by department staff or other designated persons. An annual survey is distributed to about 1,500 trappers to provide additional insight about the relative abundance and trends of Alaska's furbearers.
Observing, photographing, and hunting small game, such as ptarmigan, grouse, and snowshoe hares, are popular activities for many Alaskans. An increasing number of nonresidents also enjoy these pastimes. As with the furbearers that prey on them, populations of most small game species fluctuate widely from year to year, or over the course of several years. The department monitors general population levels through trend counts in key areas, incidental observations during surveys for other species, and by talking with hunters, trappers, and other outdoor enthusiasts. The department periodically issues a status report on upland game populations across the state.
Waterfowl & Marine Mammals
Alaska’s extensive wetlands and marine waters support a wealth of waterfowl, seaduck, and marine mammal species. ADF&G maintains a waterfowl research and management program to cooperatively manage ducks and geese with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through the Pacific Flyway Council. Studies include monitoring the recovery of harlequin ducks from the Exxon Valdez oil spill, population change in dusky Canada geese on the Copper River Delta, and study of the federally threatened population of Steller’s eiders that occur in Alaska.
The department also runs a research program to evaluate status, trend and health of certain marine mammals. The information is shared and sometimes collected jointly with the federal agencies that are responsible for managing marine mammals in Alaska. Over the past few decades, ADF&G biologists have worked on Steller sea lions to evaluate their abundance, targeted prey, nutrition and physiology. They also work on high profile species like beluga whales, bowhead whales, harbor seals, and ‘ice’ (i.e., bearded, ribbon, spotted, and ringed) seals. Some of these species are important for subsistence use by residents of Alaska’s coastal villages.
Conserving Wildlife Diversity
Alaska contains many different types of ecosystems -- productive areas of habitat that are home to thousands of wildlife species. Many of these species have been little studied at least in terms of Western science. We expect others have yet to be discovered.
The importance of Alaska’s more obscure species cannot be overestimated. Many provide important ecological or economic benefits, including as food sources for other wildlife or Alaska residents, and as targets for wildlife tourism. Still others are valued for use in the study of animal behavior, parasitology, genetics, medicine, and toxicology.
With a few exceptions, ADF&G is the entity responsible under law for managing and conserving the full range of these species. Wildlife management professionals rely on research by ADF&G staff and partner organizations to determine what management actions will best maintain these populations and their habitats in perpetuity. This includes actions to help prevent invasive species or wildlife diseases from entering or spreading within Alaska.
Alaska’s Wildlife Action Plan has been instrumental in outlining and beginning to address the management and research needs for species that have not been the traditional focus of fish, wildlife, and habitat management agencies. Some of these species have been identified as having special status in Alaska. The Wildlife Diversity Partner Program works proactively with state, federal, and private partners to conserve wildlife species before they become threatened or endangered, to recover species which are already in peril, and to “keep common species common.”
Economic considerations point up the need to take long-term wildlife conservation needs seriously: Understanding and acting on the needs of at-risk species and their habitats helps to prevent future listings or development-activity restrictions that could be imposed under the Endangered Species Act or other laws.