Anchorage, Alaska - The State of Alaska began killing wolves to increase moose and caribou numbers in December 2003, using airplanes to make the job easier. Since then, groups from around the country have weighed in, pitting biologist against biologist in the battle over Alaska's wolves.
As well as a tourism boycott, national attention and criticism has centered on the state's wolf control program. The program is aimed at killing 610 wolves this year, sparking a renewed round of protests.
Thousands of letters are ready to be sent to Gov. Frank Murkowski. One of the letters is actually a permit for pilots to participate in the state's aerial wolf-control program.
"We've stamped it, 'Rejected twice by Alaskan voters,'" says Karen Deatherage, Alaska Program Associate of Defenders of Wildlife.
In 1996, and again in 2000, Alaskan voters passed ballot measures related to aerial shooting. But both times, in 1999 and in 2003, state lawmakers modified the initiatives, making it easier for the state to justify the practice.
"Even though there's enough food and water and space for many more moose, for instance, there may be just a fraction of those present because predators keep them at low numbers," says biologist Cathie Harms, information officer for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
In November 2003, the Board of Game adopted aerial wolf control, aimed at increasing moose numbers. Murkowski gave the Department of Fish and Game the go-ahead.
Groups like Friends of Animals wish he hadn't. "The Department of Wildlife Conservation should be renamed the Department of Moose Ranching," says Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, a Connecticut-based group.
Currently, five areas of the state are seeing some form of aerial wolf control. In McGrath, Tok, and Aniak, state-licensed gunners shoot from the air, while in the Nelchina Basin and west Cook Inlet, it's land-and-shoot only.
As of yesterday, 103 wolves had been killed.
In 2004, in McGrath and Nelchina, the only two areas where wolf control took place last year, 144 wolves were killed.
The state says it's working. Moose numbers are climbing, especially in McGrath. "Calf survival from birth until September has gone from about 40 percent to about 80 percent during this time frame," Harms says.
Opponents of the program, such as wolf biologist and researcher Gordon Haber, say the data Fish and Game is using to justify aerial shoots is incomplete, extrapolated from very small sample sizes. Haber has been studying Alaska's wolves for more than a decade.
"The state Department of Fish and Game has the gall to say that this is based on sound science," Haber says. "It is simply not."
Haber's funding comes almost entirely from Friends of Animals, the Darien, Conn. organization that launched the tourism boycott. But, Haber says, other than supplying him with funds, Friends of Animal is not involved in his work.
Conservation biologist Rick Steiner also opposes the program. He says it benefits only hunters, many of whom are from out of state.
"It's sort of the tail wagging the dog, basically," he says. "People want to shoot wolves from airplanes. Some do. And therefore, they have backed around and tried to justify the program with some pretty shaky, sloppy science."
State biologists with Fish and Game dispute that claim. They say they have the numbers to back up the program. "We do surveys now. There may be people who say, 'You don't know everything.' And that's true," Harms says. "Do we know enough to make sure that the animals aren't going to go away? We're not going to endanger them, we're not going to threaten them."
One opponent says the program will actually lead to too many moose for the state's wildlands to handle.
"We're seeing that right now in Fairbanks, where they're having to kill cows and calves, because the population up there is out of control," says Deatherage. "Why is that? Because the wolves and bears in that area have been hammered for years."
Wolves have come to represent the wilds of western America -- the call of the wild. But that call gets different answers depending largely on where you live. In Connecticut, it's answered by renewed efforts to save Alaska's wolves, all of them. In McGrath, it's more likely met by the hardened stare of a hunter who's dreaming of hanging some moose meat in his shed for the first time in years.
The practice of predator control is not new to governments in Alaska. During territorial days, federal game managers used poison to kill off wolves, bears, wolverines and even Dolly Varden trout.
Harms says the state has also been darting and moving bears from the McGrath area during the moose-calving season, and that practice also has helped to boost moose numbers. Bottom line, the wolf-control program is supposed to last five years, and it's still in its second year, so it's too early to draw conclusions about its effects.