Murkowski Set to Allow Wolf Control From the Air
HUNTING: Governor is satisfied that administration retains ultimate control.
Gov. Frank Murkowski has apparently dropped his opposition to a bill that could let private hunters shoot wolves from airplanes, and he is expected to sign it into law today in Fairbanks.
Senate Bill 155 allows private citizens to participate in aerial and so-called land-and-shoot hunting in approved state predator-control programs. It also makes it easier for the Alaska Board of Game to implement such efforts.
Murkowski had objected to a provision in the bill that takes the commissioner of Fish and Game, who is appointed by the governor, out of the predator control decision process. It lets the Game Board design predator-control programs without Fish and Game Department approval.
But the governor apparently has decided the administration retains ultimate authority over predator control in Alaska. Fish and Game can refuse to fund programs and can block private hunters from receiving the federal permit needed for aerial hunting.
"The governor feels fairly comfortable that there will still be sufficient control here," said his spokesman, John Manly.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Ralph Seekins, R-Fairbanks, was originally considered a housekeeping measure. It aimed to clarify who could participate in aerial predator control programs. The state's lawyers said the state already had authority to use private pilots and that the bill would resolve lingering questions.
Seekins' measure also loosened restrictions under which the Game Board can call for predator control. The existing statutes say that the board must determine the prey population -- moose or caribou -- has fallen below previously established minimum levels.
SB 155 would allow predator control regardless of the prey population.
"It gives you a chance to manage without focusing on just one objective," such as the number of moose around McGrath or caribou around Nelchina, Seekins said in March.
In response to complaints by wolf-control advocates that the Department of Fish and Game under former Gov. Tony Knowles had blocked their efforts, a later amendment said the Fish and Game commissioner's approval was no longer necessary. That drew Murkow ski's opposition.
With the new law, the board, not Fish and Game, would establish the objectives, methods and means of predator control programs and determine who could participate and how to control them.
Aerial wolf hunting was a common practice before statehood and is seen as the most effective way to kill the wide-ranging, clever animals. It has proven publicly unpopular, however. As state and federal laws have gradually ended airborne and land-and-shoot hunting, many hunters believe wolves have proliferated and prey has declined. They want aerial hunting back.
No one has legally shot a wolf from the air in Alaska since the mid-1990s, but the Game Board last March listed aerial hunting as its top choice for eliminating about 40 wolves in a predator-control program near McGrath. The board wanted Fish and Game employees to shoot them from helicopters, but Murkowski wouldn't allow it, saying he wanted McGrath residents to take care of the problem.
Seekins' bill may satisfy Murkowski's desire to leave wolf control to private citizens and hunters' desire to shoot from the air. Aerial wolf hunts could be used soon, but sparingly, said Matt Robus, Fish and Game's director of wildlife conservation.
"I'm not going to say every plan is going to be adopted and implemented or not. These are very complicated, case-by-case situations that the department will have to review," he said.
Robus said the department is interested in aerial wolf hunting near McGrath, where the state has been capturing and removing bears in a predator control experiment this summer. One goal is to boost the moose harvest for local residents; another is to monitor the effect of eliminating virtually all large predators from a relatively small area.
Predator control may not be effective in other areas of the state, Robus said, for technological, biological or even social reasons.
"It's not just the wildlife biology that's tough but how different members of the public feel and how that comes to bear on the department," Robus said.
Opponents of aerial wolf control say the Game Board and department will be wise to use the new predator control authority carefully.
"It's not just as simple as permitting a few aerial shooters," said Joel Bennett, a former Game Board member who now represents Defenders of Wildlife. "The state has to analyze the impact of one program on other programs, what the national outcry is going be, how much (department) personnel time is needed for response. It's not a low-impact program."
The last time the Legislature eased restrictions in the state's land-and-shoot laws, voters overturned the action through a ballot referendum. Bennett said opponents of the new law "haven't decided what to do yet."
But a national outcry and tourism boycott could result, he said.
"It's going to be perceived as a state program, that the state of Alaska is using aircraft to shoot wolves. The previous ugly wolf-control efforts of years past will rear up, and that's the image people have."
Daily News reporter Joel Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 257-4310.
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