Governor Says No on Wolf Bill
AERIAL HUNTS: Spokesman says measure would usurp state powers
A bill allowing private individuals to shoot wolves from airplanes in state-sanctioned predator-control programs has strong support in the Alaska Legislature but faces opposition from an unexpected quarter: Gov. Frank Murkowski.
As a candidate, Murkowski said he supported "active game management," which includes shooting wolves to help moose and caribou populations rebound.
But Senate Bill 155, sponsored by Sen. Ralph Seekins, R-Fairbanks, takes the power to authorize predator control programs away from the commissioner of fish and game and assigns it to the Board of Game.
"This is a usurpation of the governor's powers," said Murkowski spokesman John Manly. Asked whether the governor will veto the bill if it passes in its current form, Manly replied, "I believe that could happen."
Government-funded predator control began during territorial days. Thousands of wolves were shot from airplanes, poisoned and trapped, which allowed moose and caribou populations in many areas to soar.
Since statehood, in 1959, wolf control has gradually declined. Biologists have discovered that black or brown bears can be at least as deadly as wolves and that environmental factors like harsh winter weather and inadequate habitat can also affect moose and caribou numbers.
While state laws still authorize Fish and Game to shoot wolves from the air, private hunters lost that privilege in 1972 with passage of the Federal Airborne Hunting Act. But aerial hunting continued through the 1980s under the guise of so-called land-and-shoot hunting.
When it was legal, the technique allowed hunters in small airplanes to track wolves during late winter, then land and shoot. In several high-profile court cases in the 1980s, hunters engaged in illegal activity under land-and-shoot hunting. They shot wolves while flying past or hazed and harassed animals out of thick brush or narrow canyons and herded them into flat, clear areas. The pilot could then land and shoot the exhausted wolves.
A citizen initiative banning land-and-shoot hunting was approved in 1996. When the Legislature resumed the practice in 2000, a citizen referendum overturned it.
Seekins' bill does not allow land-and-shoot sporthunting to resume. It clarifies Fish and Game's authority to use private hunters in predator control programs approved by the Board of Game.
The original version of the bill also allowed pre-emptive strikes against wolves, bears or other predators rather than waiting until moose or caribou stocks had plummeted. The board could request predator control, but the commissioner of Fish and Game had to approve it.
After Murkowski refused to let state employees in helicopters kill wolves around McGrath, the bill metamorphosed. Under the bill that passed in the Senate and appears headed for House approval, the Game Board now designs predator control programs. The commissioner's approval is no longer needed.
The state's top game biologist, Matt Robus, director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation, told the House Resources Committee on Friday that the bill is unacceptable.
The department would still have final authority over predator control, Robus said later. The department could choose not to fund any program it didn't like and could ensure a pilot didn't get the federal permit needed for aerial or land-and-shoot hunting.
Robus proposed an administration amendment to committee chairman Rep. Bud Fate, R-Fairbanks, that would give the commissioner seven days to review the board's predator control plans. The amendment was never offered, and the committee adopted without opposition the language already approved by the Senate.
Robus said he doesn't know what to expect next. "It's basically going to take a legislator to take an interest in it and offer an amendment and that didn't happen today," he said.
The bill now goes to the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee, chaired by one of the measure's many co-sponsors, Rep. Carl Morgan, R-Aniak. If the bill isn't changed there or on the House floor, it goes to Murkowski to be signed.
That would be fine for several people who testified Friday. The bill is the top priority of the state's largest sport hunting advocacy group, the Alaska Outdoors Council, said its executive director, Jessie Vanderzanden.
"It's not about fair chase or eliminating wolves," he said, but about taking a no-nonsense approach to game management. By streamlining the process of predator control, state biologists can take much-needed steps to bring caribou and moose stocks back to their former high numbers, he said.
Robert Fithian, a master guide and executive director of the Alaska Professional Hunters Association, noted that wildlife management is allowed on less than 20 percent of Alaska lands. SB 155 gives managers on that slim slice of the state a valuable tool, he said.
Nonsense, other people told the committee. The statewide wolf harvest has risen steadily since land-and-shoot hunting was banned, said Paul Joslin of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, and the method isn't needed now, even for predator control.
Retired Fish and Game biologist and former Game Board member Vic Van Ballenberghe said that Alaskans have voiced their opposition to land-and-shoot hunting twice before and that SB 155 is likely to be overturned in another voter referendum.
Daily News reporter Joel Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 257-4310
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