Game Board OK's Aerial Wolf Hunts

Joel Gay / Anchorage Daily News / November 5, 2003

Private pilots using their own airplanes and ammunition could be shooting wolves from the air later this month under a predator-control program around McGrath approved Tuesday by the Alaska Board of Game.

It would be the first such program of legal aerial wolf kills in Alaska in more than a decade, and the decision drew immediate pledges of a tourism boycott from the tactic's foes.

The board also approved a second program aimed at boosting moose and caribou stocks on a broad swath of state land north of Glennallen. It could start as early as January.

A decision on a proposal to institute aerial wolf-control in a third hunting unit, around Skwentna, was postponed until March.

The unanimous board votes at the Millennium Alaskan Hotel were expected, and prompted little public reaction. But among those who sat in for part of the meeting was Sen. Ralph Seekins, the Fairbanks Republican whose legislation allowing private citizens to participate in predator control paved the way for Tuesday's votes. He was clearly pleased.

"I think there's an openness under this administration to actually move from monitoring to managing wildlife populations," Seekins said. "The Board of Game in the past has instituted intensive management plans, but the administration has done nothing about it. I think we'll see, at the end of the day, a more cooperative attitude of bringing predator-prey relationships into balance through active management."

Opponents said the board's decision ignores Alaska voters' rejection of land-and-shoot hunting in 1996 and again in 2000. "The state Legislature, the governor and now the Game Board have trampled on the voters' wishes," said Karen Deatherage of Defenders of Wildlife.

The votes will also spawn a national tourism boycott "if and when wolf-control measures take shape and are implemented," said Priscilla Feral, president of the Connecticut-based advocacy group Friends of Animals. "I anticipate the economic screws will be put on the governor's office, because that's the only language he understands," she said.

Tuesday's votes were not unexpected. Previous boards have authorized predator-control programs, but were shelved for reasons ranging from public opposition to lack of scientific backing. Gov. Frank Murkowski was elected last fall at least in part because he championed "active management" of game, which many have said is shorthand for predator control.

But Murkowski surprised many when last spring he refused to allow state biologists to carry out a Game Board-approved plan to shoot wolves from helicopters around McGrath. He insisted on leaving the killing to private citizens. Seekins' bill, SB 155, made that possible, by allowing private citizens to participate in a state-sponsored predator control.

Under the plan unanimously approved by the board, the state would enlist a handful of volunteer pilots, perhaps as few as three to begin with, said Fish and Game regional biologist David James. They must apply to participate, and will be chosen based on their knowledge of the McGrath area and their flying experience. Applications should be ready within two weeks, James said.

The plan calls for eliminating as many wolves as possible from an experimental management area, plus a larger area surrounding it that harbors additional wolves, a total of some 1,700 square miles. Biologists believe about 40 wolves can be taken as part of a plan to reduce predation in the study area.

Because of the thick woods, pilots are expected to rely on aerial shooting, using shotguns with large-size shot. Pilots would receive nothing for their efforts except the wolves they kill. A top-quality pelt can fetch as much as $300 in Anchorage, according to fur buyers, although some pelts are such poor quality they can't be sold.

A slightly different program was approved for hunting game management unit 13, the Nelchina basin. It covers some 7,800 square miles in the center of the unit. More pilots would be required, said Fish and Game biologist Bob Tobey, but the state will only give permits to those who demonstrate the proper experience. Permits are not expected to be ready until January.

Unlike McGrath, the Nelchina pilots would be required to land before they shoot their wolves, using rifles rather than shotguns. The goal is to kill 100 to 130 wolves, Tobey said, which should bring the area's wolf population to a level that should allow moose and caribou stocks to improve.

The Nelchina basin's moose population has declined 52 percent in the last 10 years, according to Fish and Game surveys. Even with several mild winters, the moose herd can't increase because too few calves survive into adulthood.

The new land-and-shoot program will be limited to areas of Unit 13 that land-based trappers don't work. Tobey said he proposed the boundaries in part to protect the area's trappers from newcomers in airplanes intruding into their territory.

But even that was too gentle an approach for some board members. "I want to protect those trappers," said Ron Somerville of Juneau, "but I don't want to see this thing drag on too long." He wanted Fish and Game to promise it would open more areas to aerial predator control if local trappers can't catch all wolves left to them.

Pete Buist of Fairbanks agreed. "If we hurt the feelings of some trapper, so be it. The goal is not to make everyone feel good," but to reduce the Nelchina basin wolf population as quickly as possible, he said.

Game Board chairman Mike Fleagle expressed confidence that the programs would continue, in spite of tourism boycott threats. Murkowski supports the programs, he said, and public opinion is swinging back in favor of predator control because people realize the goal is not to exterminate every wolf.

"People realize we're going to have wolves around, but we're going to keep their numbers in check," Fleagle said.

Wolf-protection advocates dispute that the pendulum has swung. "Most people believe it's wrong to manipulate one group of animals just to appease hunters, a special interest group," said Friends of Animals spokeswoman Feral.

Daily News reporter Joel Gay can be reached at or at 257-4310.

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