Aerial Wolf Hunt Disgraces Alaska

COMPASS: Points of view from the community

Paul Joslin / COMPASS / Anchorage Daily News / November 25, 2003

Alaska is about to become a national disgrace. A posse of deputized members of the public mounted on airplanes instead of horses is hurriedly being put together. The goal is to head out to McGrath to play cowboys in the sky, chasing down every wolf they can find within a 1,730-square-mile area and blast them with buckshot -- established mates, other adults, yearlings and pups. Much of the terrain is brushy, and since the posse is manning airplanes instead of helicopters, it will only be able to do flybys. Lots of wolves will be wounded.

I'm a wolf biologist who for years followed packs around on the ground. It sickens me to think that all we have learned about wolves is being ignored by a handful of men in control who believe that wolves are vermin. Men like Sen. Ralph Seekins, Mike Fleagle and Gov. Frank Murkowski. Sen. Seekins railroaded Senate Bill 155 through the Legislature last spring, overturning the decision made by Alaska voters twice at the ballot box to end airborne killing of wolves. He argued that wolves are so prolific that they breed twice a year and that it is better to control their numbers rather than require proof that they are causing a decline in prey numbers. Biologists determined long ago that wolves breed only once a year and have a complex social structure that limits numbers. Wolves serve an important role in the ecosystem that favors removing the sick and the weak to the genetic benefit of prey populations. They have co-existed with moose and caribou for hundreds of thousands of years.

Mike Fleagle, a McGrath local and chair of the Board of Game, spearheaded the aerial wolf kill in McGrath. He believes that wolves have contributed to a major decline in moose numbers. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game undertook an in-depth McGrath moose count in 1996 and again in 2001. It determined that moose numbers were stable or increasing over the region as a whole. Extremely low numbers of bull moose close to McGrath indicated that overhunting was a problem, but only locally. In March 2003, Fish and Game Commissioner Kevin Duffy sent a letter to Mike Fleagle stating that since the population objectives had been met, he could not support an aerial wolf control program. The matter would have ended there had not the subsequent passage of SB 155 included language that removed the power of the commissioner to make findings and gave it to the Board of Game.

In June 2003, Gov. Frank Murkowski signed SB 155 into law and stacked the Board of Game with anti-predator extremists. In November 2003, his board approved the McGrath wolf kill, agreed to create a second aerial posse to clear out another 100 to 130 wolves in a 7,800-square-mile area in the middle of the Nelchina basin, and discussed creating yet a third aerial posse to go after another wolf population west of Cook Inlet. The board also approved language that would allow people convicted of shooting wolves from aircraft in the past to be considered among those applying for the aerial posse. It recognized that such folks have special aerial wolf killing expertise.

Every year Alaska kills more than twice as many wolves as it did a quarter-century ago, thanks to high-speed snowmachines, legalized pursuit of wolves on snowmachines, liberal bag limits and seasons, trapping clinics and private bounties. The density of wolves in Alaska is less than half that found in Minnesota -- a state that long ago learned that it could live with wolves, harvest plenty of game and maintain a huge livestock industry to boot.

Instead of bringing back aerial wolf killing, we should be assessing what damage has been done to the wolf-prey equation and the maintenance of healthy ecosystems.

What will it take for Gov. Murkowski to call off the aerial posses? Voter outrage? Legal action? The backlash of a nation shocked by what Alaska's leaders are doing? We'll know soon.

Paul Joslin is Wildlife Director of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance.


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