How many times must Alaskans tell lawmakers this won't fly?

Opinion / Anchorage Daily News / June 22, 2003


Gov. Frank Murkowski's decision to sign a bill allowing private hunters to shoot wolves from airplanes and practice land-and-shoot hunting in state-approved programs defies the twice-expressed will of Alaska voters.

Alaska voters should lay down the law again at the next general election in 2004.

The state Board of Game wants to kill up to 40 wolves in the McGrath area as part of a predator-control program to increase game populations.

Two of Gov. Murkowski's predecessors, Walter Hickel and Tony Knowles, concluded that the national reaction to aerial wolf control, not to mention opposition in Alaska, would cost the state more than it was worth. And in 1996, Alaskans voted to ban land-and-shoot wolf hunting in a ballot initiative.

Wolf-control proponents decried "ballot-box biology'' and "Outside money.'' Stories were told of scarce game and wolves threatening children. Those who wanted land-and-shoot or aerial hunting to control wolves said Alaskans didn't know what they were voting for.

"The issue is not about 'sport hunting' or 'fair chase,' '' wrote Dick Bishop, a retired game biologist, in 2000. "It's about being able to manage predator-prey systems where big game prey populations are too low to support traditional hunting."

Lawmakers restored limited land-and-shoot hunting despite the '96 vote.

Aerial hunting opponents argued that the need for wolf control wasn't proven and wasn't founded on solid science but on cries for action from local residents and the personal preferences of some legislators.

And many Alaskans, along with vocal Outside groups, just couldn't abide gunning down wolves from the air to help provide a supply of game to hunters.

"Land-and-shoot is bad public policy and poor hunting ethics and is unnecessary for sound wildlife management,'' Vic Van Ballenberghe, also a former game biologist, wrote that same year.

Mr. Bishop was right on one count: Wolf control is not about sport hunting; once you've decided that you need to kill wolves to boost populations of moose and caribou, fair chase is not the core issue. This is game management -- with extreme prejudice. The idea is to kill swiftly and humanely, but in the end you want the wolf to catch a bullet, not a break.

There's an image problem here. What Alaskans might call game management much of the rest of the nation and the world sees as aerial slaughter. Hence the talk of tourism boycotts and national outrage.

Bad press Outside is one thing. More important for Alaskans is where we draw the line here on predator control. Most Alaskans believe some control is necessary -- or at least have the sense never to say "never.'' But how we go about it makes a difference.

In 1996 and again in 2000, Alaskans said no to wolf hunting with airplanes. Unless wolves are spreading disease, the airplane chase just flat goes against the grain. And that's land-and-shoot; never mind firing down on the animals from the air.

Yes, it's hard to hunt and kill wolves, and no, they're not creatures out of Disney. Yes, there may be a wolf problem. But this isn't the solution. Times and sensibilities have changed. Most Alaskans don't see wolves as vermin -- and they don't like having their views or their thinking treated with contempt by elected officials.

Joel Bennett, a wolf-control critic and former game board member, said he didn't know if Alaskans would fight the battle by initiative a third time. They should. In the meantime, Mr. Bennett had a warning for the Board of Game and the administration. They should think twice and be able to make a powerful case before they shoot from the air -- or Alaskans are likely to ground them again in 2004.

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