Governor OKs Predator Control Bill
With one stroke of his pen Wednesday afternoon, Gov. Frank Murkowski brought the return of state-sponsored aerial wolf control a step closer to reality.
In a Fairbanks ceremony, Murkowski ratified Senate Bill 155, a measure that will broaden the Board of Game's authority to institute land-and-shoot predator control programs. During the legislative session, Murkowski had expressed dissatisfaction with the bill, introduced by Sen. Ralph Seekins, R-Fairbanks, because of provisions that stand to lessen the influence of the administration over predator control.
But Wednesday at a Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce-sponsored gathering, Murkowski said he was satisfied with the final measure.
"The final version of the bill addressed a concern that I had and feel very strongly about, that the administration have a significant level of involvement in adopting a predator control program," Murkowski said. "The bill ... will create a useful tool for the Board of Game and the Department (of Fish and Game) to carry out my goal and others of using predator control to achieve abundant and healthy game populations in Alaska."
Seekins' bill began as a measure to clarify language in state statute to make land-and-shoot predator control, including wolf killing by permitted civilians, clearly legal. Opponents of the bill have argued that the practice was made illegal by a pair of citizens' initiatives, but Seekins and state lawyers contend that the practice was already legal and the bill only tweaks language to make that clear.
In addition to the land-and-shoot provision, the bill also allows the Board of Game to base aerial predator control programs not just on prey populations but also on harvest and predator numbers. That's a key provision for the proposed wolf control program in the McGrath area, because prey numbers there are not currently low enough to allow predator control.
But the major sticking point for Murkowski came in a later, substitute version of the bill that, in theory, allows the Board of Game to enact predator control programs without approval from the administration.
Before the bill was ratified, the commissioner of Fish and Game had to give the final OK for airborne predator control, allowing the administration to veto programs by simply refusing to act on a board request. Seekins' bill takes away the commissioner's pocket veto power, leaving final approval to the board.
Seekins said he introduced the substitute in order to remove politics from the predator control process. Governors and game boards have differed on the issue for a decade.
Seekins' idea wouldn't work in practice, however, because any predator control plan--even one that uses private citizens and aircraft--requires some expenditure of state funds, which must be approved by the administration. In addition, the commissioner still has to issue federal permits to allow predator control to go forward.
But Murkowski said that was open to interpretation and that the bill at least appeared to have allowed the Board of Game to entirely circumvent the administration.
"There was an assumption that the Board of Game would have the authority to simply go ahead and authorize predator control solely without the input of and authority of the commissioner," he said. "Now we can fine tune that into individual interpretations, but generally that was the assumption."
A compromise amendment proposed by the administration was not adopted by the Legislature. Shortly before the House was to vote on the bill, Seekins offered a brief amendment that expressly stated that the use of state employees or equipment for airborne predator control is prohibited without the approval of the commissioner.
The amendment didn't really seem to help matters, however, since it simply stated what was already in state statute. At the time, Division of Wildlife Conservation director Matt Robus said the amendment wouldn't change Murkowski's objections to the bill.
But Robus apparently spoke too soon. Murkowski said Wednesday that he was satisfied with the final version.
"It does provide the flexibility for the board to make recommendations to the commissioner to utilize fixed wing and/or other private-sector facilities, and requires that the approval and the funding go through the Department of Fish and Game and the office of the commissioner," he said, "which I think provides a reasonable check and balance and still gets us where we want to go."
The passage of the bill brought a round of objections from wolf control opponents, who argue that Alaskans oppose wolf control by civilians.
"The state Legislature and now the governor have blatantly disregarded the wishes of the Alaskan people by overturning two statewide ballot measures," reads a Defenders of Wildlife press release. "Both measures expressly banned public, same-day airborne wolf shooting in any form for any reason."
Reaction differed on the other side. Board of Game member Pete Buist said Wednesday that the bill paves the way for a wolf control program to begin in McGrath, where the board has already approved a program to help increase the area's ungulate population but has been stymied by both the land-and-shoot question and local prey numbers.
The board actually recommended a McGrath program using state personnel and helicopters, but Murkowski nixed that idea, saying he wanted to leave the job in the hands of local residents. Buist said the board now will likely put together an alternative plan using fixed-wing aircraft and civilians instead, possibly during a teleconference but more likely during the board's next meeting in November.
"My guess is that the board will probably craft a plan that includes the use of licensed hunters and trappers with some of the methods and needs that are now available to us that were not available before," he said.
Buist guessed a McGrath wolf control plan might be ready to implement in January or February of next year. But he said he still maintains doubts that a program will come to pass.
"Lots of plans have been made and legislation batted around," he said. "When I actually see some work being done on the ground, then I'll be happy."
Reporter Tom Moran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 459-7590.
Wolf Song of Alaska, P.O. Box 671670, Chugiak, Alaska 99567-1670