Administrative Error Reopens Discussion on Nelchina Hunt

PREDATORS: But Board of Game's failure to notify
does not affect McGrath wolf kill

Doug O'Harra / Anchorage Daily News / November 7, 2003

The Alaska Board of Game must revisit its decision about Nelchina Basin wolf control and get more public comment because board staff members didn't send official notices to about 1,000 people on its mailing lists.

The state Department of Law ruled that this lack of public notice -- caused by a misunderstanding in an e-mail message -- nullifies 25 proposals passed during the board's Anchorage meeting, said Diana Cote, executive director of the board support section in the Department of Fish and Game.

"It was an error on our part," she said Thursday. "I think everybody who wanted to know about the meeting knew ... but the letter of the law wasn't followed."

Among the actions now on hold are new regulations that would permit certain private pilots to land and shoot wolves in a 7,800-square-mile area north of Glennallen as soon as January, in a program aimed at increasing Nelchina Basin moose and caribou by killing 100 to 130 of their predators.

That proposal, as well as 24 routine regulatory changes for Region 5 in Western Alaska, will now go through another round of public scrutiny.

The board must mail and publish new meeting notices as soon as possible, take written public comment for another 30 days and then vote again at a teleconference meeting Dec. 15, Cote said.

While no new oral testimony will be taken in December, all previous comments remain valid and people will be able to listen to the teleconference meeting at sites in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau.

The process will cost about $5,000, Cote said.

"The first question you ask is, 'Why?' " said Game Board chairman Mike Fleagle of McGrath. "But once they explain that it's just an error or an oversight, you say, 'OK, let's pick it up and let's fix it.' I certainly don't blame anybody."

In practical terms, the administrative glitch could mean little difference in the timing or number of wolves that might be killed under a predator-control program that has reignited one of Alaska's most divisive wildlife issues. And the other 24 regulations on the table for Western Alaska weren't supposed to take effect until July 1.

Three to five private pilots still will be issued permits to shoot about 40 wolves from aircraft in a 1,700-square-mile area near McGrath later this month, wildlife officials said. The goal was to reduce the number of predators eating moose.

While the board discussed the McGrath project at the meeting and voted to reaffirm its support, the project had been approved under existing regulations and wasn't affected by the meeting notices, according to Cote.

"Our understanding is the signal to proceed is still valid," said Matt Robus, director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation. "We can issue permits right now ... and that's what we intend to do in the McGrath area."

If the board reapproves Nelchina wolf kill, permits could be issued by mid- or late-January, said Jeff Hughes, regional supervisor for the wildlife division. That's only a few weeks later than if the decision hadn't been nullified.

The mistake notice occurred when two staff members overseeing the mailing lists misunderstood each other, Cote said. Notices were mailed to game advisory boards but not to the state Law Department, federal agencies and many individuals.

Cote would not identify the people who goofed or say whether they would be disciplined.

"Our division has a lot of checks in our system to make sure errors like this don't happen," she said. "We're working with the Department of Law to identify more checks that we can put into our system so that it doesn't happen ever again."

Some conservation groups and animal welfare organizations have protested the board's decision to conduct a wolf kill, arguing that it's unnecessary and ignores Alaska voters' rejection of land-and-shoot hunting in 1996 and 2000. One group has threatened to launch a national tourism boycott.

But wildlife officials have countered that these projects aren't hunting but state-sponsored predator control conducted by a small number of citizens with permits.

Although the board has unanimously approved the wolf programs once, it will study any new comments before voting again, Fleagle said.

"Obviously, the board could take new votes based on new testimony," he said. "A person really hates to presuppose anything on this, but conceivably we could maintain the same decision."

"I think Alaskans ought to take this opportunity to send written comments into the Board of Game regarding these proposals that violate the wishes of the Alaska people," responded Karen Deatherage of Defenders of Wildlife, a group opposing the wolf program. "And call the governor."

Daily News reporter Doug O'Harra can be reached at do'

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