Aerial Wolf Hunt Close to Approval

MEETING: Game Board gathers this week to decide
whether to revive predator control practice.


Joel Gay / Anchorage Daily News / November 3, 2003

 

Shooting wolves from airplanes as a form of predator control could resume early next year if the Alaska Board of Game takes advantage of a new state law at its meeting in Anchorage this week.

It would be the first aerial wolf control in nearly 20 years and is certain to stir emotions in Alaska and beyond. Wolf-protection advocates plan a demonstration airing their point of view at the Game Board at 10:30 a.m. today at the Millennium Alaskan Hotel, where the board is meeting. Organizers say they will bring "wolf look-alikes" dressed in bulletproof vests.

National protests, including a tourism boycott, are also possible, said Dorothy Keeler, a wildlife photographer and longtime vocal opponent of wolf control. A boycott in the early 1990s helped persuade former Gov. Wally Hickel to call off the last planned lethal wolf-control program.

But even as protesters speak out, Game Board members say they believe other Alaskans, particularly hunters and rural residents, are ready for lethal wolf control, which is aimed at boosting populations of game animals, to resume.

The board could approve a long-awaited predator control program in a small area around McGrath. Also at the meeting, the board will consider similar measures for the Skwentna region and could lay the groundwork for programs elsewhere around the state.

"If the public is properly informed of the pluses and minuses, including the subsistence issues involved, I think this (program) will get off the ground," said Game Board member Ron Somerville of Juneau.

The Board of Game is charged with managing wildlife populations in Alaska, but no issue has galvanized the state like predator control. It has gone in and out of vogue since the 1900s, when bounties were paid and wolves were shot from airplanes, poisoned and trapped. In some areas, their numbers fell so low that moose and caribou herds exploded, then crashed after over-browsing the available food.

After statehood in 1959, support for widespread wolf control began to decline. Bounties were canceled and sport hunting from airplanes was made illegal in 1972, though the Alaska Department of Fish and Game continued its predator-control efforts. State biologists shot more than 1,000 wolves from airplanes and helicopters in the 1970s and '80s.

Gov. Steve Cowper canceled the program in 1986 for budgetary reasons, although it was already the subject of public pressure. The next aerial wolf-control plan, in the early 1990s, was killed before it started, the victim of a successful national tourism boycott.

State wolf-control efforts then shifted to trapping, but the program near Fairbanks ended in 1994 when state snares intended to catch wolves captured large numbers of moose, caribou and even eagles, leading to widespread public condemnation.

In spite of the failures, regulations allowing state biologists to shoot wolves from the air remain on the books, and the Game Board this week is poised to resume the practice -- with a twist: Private citizens using their own aircraft will be allowed to shoot wolves from the air under a new law passed by the Alaska Legislature last spring.

Sen. Ralph Seekins, R-Fairbanks, drafted the bill after Gov. Frank Murkowski refused to allow state employees to shoot from helicopters in an experimental wolf-control program in hunting unit 19D East, near McGrath.

Either today or tomorrow, the Game Board will design the McGrath aerial-control program, including details such as who can participate and how many wolves each can shoot. Matt Robus, director of Fish and Game's game division, said the intention is to devise a "carefully monitored, limited-participation effort."

Only experienced pilots will be chosen, Robus said, and not necessarily land-and-shoot veterans. "We believe people should be allowed to participate based on some past experience," such as "flying low and slow, tracking wildlife, landing in off-field situations -- we want to make sure anybody authorized to do it is effective and safe."

The question of liability in the event of an accident has yet to be addressed, he said. State attorneys will be at the meeting to offer their advice.

The board has been considering the McGrath-area predator-control program for nearly 10 years. Board chairman Mike Fleagle, who lives in McGrath, said he hopes the board can hammer out all the necessary details at this week's meeting.

Once the McGrath plan is finalized, the board could also design an aerial wolf-control plan for large portions of hunting unit 13, the Nelchina basin.

Other areas could follow, including the Skwentna/Rainy Pass region, once the board approves individual intensive management plans for each area.

Somerville said the board is eager to expand the state's wolf-control efforts. "The board will have to decide where the priority areas are and address them," he said at a board work session Friday. "I firmly believe we shouldn't shy away from addressing these predator-prey relationships. I think the board has the obligation to all the public, the hunting and the non-hunting."

Wolf control opponents say the board and the Murkowski administration are asking for trouble by allowing resumption of aerial wolf control, said Paul Joslin of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance. He and others say that other factors, such as over-hunting and inadequate food supplies, are at least partly responsible for low moose numbers near McGrath and that shooting wolves is unnecessary.

"We're worried that the direction they're going could put Alaska at risk" from a national tourism boycott, he said.

Dorothy Keeler, who operates a wildlife photography business with her husband, Leo, said wolf-protection advocates around the country are watching the Game Board closely. They won't hesitate to call for a boycott, she warned, which could have the same powerful effect it had in the early 1990s. "That's the ace up our sleeve," she said.

The Game Board, which met all weekend to discuss western and northern Alaska hunting proposals, will take up the wolf-control plans when it finishes its other work. Board staff said that could be as early as this morning or as late as Tuesday morning.

Daily News reporter Joel Gay can be reached at jgay@adn.com or at 257-4310.


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