Board to Decide on Aerial Wolf Control

Protesters accompanied by wolf-dog hybrids wearing bullet-proof vests

The Juneau Empire / Associated Press / November 4, 2003


ANCHORAGE - About 25 wolf advocates protested Monday morning during the meeting of the Alaska Board of Game, which is expected to take up the issue of whether to allow wolves to be shot from airplanes.

The board met Monday and will meet again today. It is expected to take up the issue after it finishes its other business. If the board approves aerial control of wolves, it is certain to stir emotions in and outside of Alaska.

The protesters stood about a block away from the Millennium Alaskan Hotel, where the board is meeting. They carried signs and were accompanied by three or four wolf-dog hybrids dressed in bulletproof vests. One sign read, "We are howling mad," and another, "Board of Shame." An organizer using a megaphone led the protesters in a chant of "The whole world is watching," and "Hey, hey, ho, ho, wolf control has got to go."

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.

Some members of the Game Board, however, said they believe other Alaskans, particularly hunters and rural residents, are ready for lethal wolf control to help boost populations of game animals.

The board is expected to consider a long-awaited predator control program in a small area around McGrath. The board also could 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.

Wolf control 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 1980s.

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.

The Game Board this week is poised to resume the practice. But this time private citizens using their own aircraft would be allowed to shoot wolves from the air under a new law passed by the Alaska Legislature last spring.

Sen. Ralph Seekins, a Fairbanks Republican, 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.

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.

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