Hunters who want to participate in an aerial wolf-control program near McGrath
will have to keep the safety on for a few more days at least.
On the same day the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced that it had
approved three teams of pilots and gunners to begin shooting wolves from airplanes
near McGrath, a Superior Court judge in Anchorage issued a court order to temporarily
halt the state's predator control program at the request of a national animal-rights
Connecticut-based Friends of Animals, along with seven Alaska plaintiffs, sought
the temporary restraining order after the state issued permits to allow hunters
to shoot 40 wolves in the McGrath area.
"It's not a big surprise," said Matt Robus, director of the state's Division
of Wildlife Conservation. "It's a very controversial program and people feel
strongly about it on both sides."
Superior Court Judge Sharon L. Gleason issued the order late Wednesday after
hearing arguments in the morning. She is also scheduled to hear arguments Tuesday
on whether to issue a preliminary injunction sought by Friends of Animals to
stop the program.
"We're on hold now until Tuesday," said Robus.
The state Board of Game last month approved a program that allows private pilots
to apply for permits to shoot up to 40 wolves in a 2,200-square-mile area near
McGrath, a Bush village of about 500 people located about 200 miles west of Fairbanks.
Prior to Gleason's decision on Wednesday, Fish and Game announced it had selected
three pilot-gunner teams from a pool of 16 applicants to begin shooting wolves.
The state began sending out applications last week to interested parties.
The goal of the program is to increase the number of moose for local subsistence
hunters by reducing the number of wolves near McGrath. In May, state wildlife
biologists captured and moved more than 80 bears from the McGrath area during
the moose-calving season in an attempt to boost the survival of moose calves,
many of which are being killed by bears shortly after being born. Wolves, meanwhile,
do the majority of their moose killing during the winter.
Fish and Game estimates that McGrath area residents need between 130 and 150
moose a year, but harvests have been averaging between 60 and 90 moose for the
In Wednesday's hearing, state lawyer Kevin Saxby argued that even a temporary
restraining order could mean scrapping the program.
"If at all possible this must proceed now," Saxby said. "If we lose those calves
we will have to start all over again ... Both fiscal and scientific harm will
happen to the state if we have to start all over again."
Saxby also pointed out that wolves are killed legally in McGrath now, both through
hunting and trapping. He said snowmachines are allowed as long as the hunters
don't shoot the wolves from the machines.
If plaintiffs are arguing that the wolf control program would do irreparable
harm to the wolves, what about those already being killed? he asked.
"They haven't demonstrated irreparable harm," Saxby said.
Plaintiffs lawyer James Reeves said Alaska Natives feel the same way about wolves
as the Great Plains Indians felt about bison. He encouraged the judge to issue
the restraining order so that the court could look seriously at questions raised
by the case.
"What's the harm if we wait a few days?" he asked.
With fresh snow blanketing the Interior, the delay could mean that hunters will
miss out on an opportunity to take wolves, said Robus. Pilots need fresh snow
to track wolves.
Fish and Game did not identify the names of the pilots and gunners approved to
take part in the program, but officials did say one team was from McGrath.
The teams were picked based on their familiarity with the area, flying experience
and ability to track wolves from the air. All three teams have participated in
previous wolf-control or land-and-shoot programs, said Robus.
"We're confident these applicants are capable of participating in a safe and
efficient manner," he said.
Pilots must pick up their permits in McGrath and the permits are valid for 30
Permits can be renewed and additional permits may be issued if necessary. The
state is keeping a prioritized list of qualified applicants and will be tracking
the harvest and effort to see if more permits are needed to reach the goal of
killing 40 wolves.
State Fish and Game officials are quick to point out that the area targeted for
killing wolves comprises less than 1 percent of Alaska and 40 wolves is only
a small fraction of the estimated 7,700 to 11,200 wolves that inhabit the state.
But Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, said if the judge fails
to issue an injunction, the animal-rights group will call for a tourism boycott
of Alaska similar to the one they did a decade ago that put a halt to Alaska's
The first tourism boycott and strong national opposition resulted in former Gov.
Walter J. Hickel imposing a moratorium on wolf control in 1992. Former Gov. Tony
Knowles then suspended state-sanctioned wolf killing shortly after gaining office
in 1994. Current Gov. Frank Murkowski, who took office in December, favors lethal
"Basically, it is putting the economic screws to the Murkowski administration," Feral
said of the threatened tourism boycott.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
News-Miner reporter Tim Mowry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 459-7587.