Anchorage - An animal rights group was unsuccessful Thursday in its attempt to persuade a judge to suspend Alaska's aerial wolf control program, now in its second year.
Friends of Animals is seeking to have the program - now authorized in five areas of the state - suspended until May 16 when the issue is scheduled for trial.
Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason refused to issue a temporary injunction Thursday, saying she needed more time to review new concerns raised by Friends of Animals. The judge also rejected a request to suspend the program even for a few days in the Tok area, where permits were issued last Friday but pilot-shooter teams have yet to kill a wolf.
"It is essential to me to knock this wolf program out," said Priscilla Feral, president of the Darien, Conn.-based Friends of Animals. "It is a tremendous carnage."
Over the next few months, the state has set a goal of killing a maximum 610 wolves to increase the number of harvestable moose in various areas of the state. Under program rules, teams are allowed to shoot wolves from the air in some areas but are required to land and shoot in others. In some areas, they can do both.
Gleason said she would issue a decision after receiving written closing arguments Friday.
If the program is suspended now, even for a few months, the more than $1 million already invested in the McGrath area, where the program has a research component, will largely be lost, said Matt Robus, director of the state Division of Wildlife Conservation.
"The next three months ... is the prime opportunity to take wolves in this fashion. It is the time this action is really effective," Robus told the judge. He denied plaintiffs' claim that more than 1,000 wolves were to be killed under the program.
While it is too early to know if the program is a success, Robus said moose calf survival in the McGrath area is looking better. That also may be true in the Nelchina Basin area, which also is entering its second year.
The multi-year program is debuting this winter in three other areas of the state: the western side of Cook Inlet, the central Kuskokwim River area and near Tok in eastern Alaska.
As of Thursday, 86 wolves had been killed this winter. Hunters reported killing 144 wolves last winter.
Friends of Animals has faced Gleason before. In late 2003, the judge refused to grant a preliminary injunction to stop the program.
James Reeves, lawyer for Friends of Animal, argued that if the program is allowed to continue the wolves will suffer irreparable and permanent harm - that is they will be killed.
The remaining wolves also will suffer long-term effects, said Gordon Haber, a wolf biologist whose research is funded by Friends of Animals. He testified that, unlike moose, wolves have complex family groups. Aerial hunting tends to take out the dominant wolves first, leaving a disorganized and vulnerable pack, resulting in higher death rates years after the program has ended, Haber said.
Friends of Animals and other plaintiffs contend that the Alaska Board of Game has established population and harvest goals for moose that are grossly inflated and unreasonable. But Mike Fleagle, game board chairman, said, if anything, the board is conservative when setting levels.
Bob Hardy, a registered big game guide in the Nelchina Basin, attended Thursday's hearing. He said he has not been able to harvest a moose for his family for the last four years. To compensate, he has boxes of beef, chicken and pork from Costco in Anchorage delivered by plane to his home in the Bush. That adds between $3,000 and $4,000 to his yearly food bill, he said.
Wayne Kubat of Wasilla also supports the program. After years of being a moose guide in the upper Cook Inlet, he stopped because there were too few moose to be found. The decline in moose coincided with an increase in wolves in the mid- and late 1990s.
The program should be given a chance to see what it can do, he said.
"If they stop it now, we will kind of lose faith in the system," Kubat said.