Governor Takes Heat from Hunters Expecting Aerial Wolf Control
MCGRATH: Backers of State Sharpshooters in Copters Feel Betrayed
Gov. Frank Murkowski is under fire from hunters who feel betrayed by his reluctance to authorize aerial wolf control near McGrath.
"It's 180 degrees from what he was saying during the campaign," said Chuck Gray, a longtime pilot and guide and former publisher of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
Last week Murkowski said he would not allow state employees to shoot wolves from helicopters, instead leaving the wolf control to hunters and trappers on the ground around McGrath. That's tantamount to doing nothing, Gray said. He and others fear Murkowski has caved in to political pressure or fears of a tourism boycott like the one launched after Alaska's last wolf-kill program in the early 1990s.
"I think he's adopted a policy predicated on and subservient to threats from animal welfare and environmental interests," said Greg Roczicka, a former Board of Game member from Bethel.
Advocates of killing wolves to boost moose and caribou populations had hoped for a quick-start to wolf control this spring, taking advantage of snow cover to track the animals. If nothing gets off the ground now, it'll be at least next winter before any wolf control can realistically occur, they say.
Murkowski denies that his position on wolf control has changed. He still supports "active wildlife management," he said Friday in Anchorage. But there are other methods of achieving the same ends short of using helicopters and state sharpshooters, he said.
"We've maintained predator control in other areas of Alaska without gunning 'em down by helicopter," he said. "I'm not convinced it can't be done with the involvement of local people."
Though Murkowski didn't elaborate on his reasons for leaving state employees out of the McGrath wolf kill, he did note that wolf control "has a volatility that goes nationwide. We have to recognize that."
Some see that as an acknowledgment that state involvement in wolf killing would be controversial.
"The fact is, there are consequences," said Joel Bennett, a former game board member and Juneau representative of the national group Defenders of Wildlife. "People get upset, and there's a cost to pay for taking airplanes out and shooting an animal that's arguably a symbol of Alaska wilderness."
That sensitivity was not apparent when candidate Murkowski, in campaign literature, promised he would "reverse the trend of declining wildlife populations by actively managing wildlife for abundance" -- shorthand for wolf control. He charged the Tony Knowles administration with dragging its feet on wolf control programs approved by the Board of Game and received strong support from hunting advocates.
Knowles stopped all lethal wolf control efforts shortly after taking office in 1994. During the Wally Hickel administration a few years earlier, a nationwide tourism boycott had prompted then-Fish and Game commissioner Carl Rosier to halt proposed aerial wolf control.
A ground-based wolf-reduction program in the Interior ended when traps and snares failed to kill the animals quickly. Photographs of snared moose and wolves with chewed-off paws caused Rosier to shelve that program too.
Voters also weighed in on the issue of wolf control in 1996 when they banned private citizens from a practice known as land-and-shoot hunting. Ostensibly, hunters would track wolves from the air, land nearby and shoot them. Critics claimed hunters were abusing the law by either chasing the wolves to exhaustion before landing or shooting them from the air.
The Alaska Legislature overrode that action in 1999 by passing a law legalizing land-and-shoot hunting. That spurred yet another ballot measure in 2000 that reiterated voters' opposition.
In the meantime, the Department of Fish and Game still had several wolf control programs on the books. Chief among them is a plan to rebuild moose stocks in hunting area 19D-East, near McGrath, and many hunters expected the shooting to begin after Murkowski was elected.
But when the Board of Game last month asked Murkowski to send state employees to shoot wolves from helicopters, the governor balked.
Murkowski said Friday that he left the wolf control to rural residents, in part for economic development reasons.
"They've chosen to live out there. I want to support them in their effort to generate a livelihood from the land," he said. "This should not necessarily be the obligation of the state of Alaska to do that for them."
But critics say ground-based predator control done by private hunters and trappers won't work.
"It sounds like the same criteria Knowles used," said Gray, a bounty hunter in the 1950s. "There can't be any effective predator control if you're going to have people do it with traps, snares and guns. We've been doing that for years."
Murkowski's decision also undercuts an experiment designed to test the basic theory of predator control. The McGrath program calls for eliminating all the predators in a 520 square-mile area, including relocating brown and black bears during the spring and closing the hunting season. Biologists hope the combined effort will allow moose stocks to rebound.
Now the wolves are unlikely to be eliminated, game board member Ted Spraker told a legislative committee last week.
"If you miss half the predators and do half the job, you can't expect more than half the results."
Ironically, Murkowski's decision to keep the state out of wolf control in McGrath puts him on the same side of the issue as Defenders of Wildlife, Bennett said.
"It was the right decision," especially if it was based on protecting Alaska from lawsuits and tourism boycotts, he said.
However, he added, it's hard to figure what Murkowski is thinking.
"A lot of people talk a good line in campaign rhetoric, then it bogs down" in political reality. "That's probably why we haven't seen much of this kind of (wolf control) activity."
Daily News reporter Joel Gay can be reached at email@example.com or at 257-4310.
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