state predator control program that would have allowed three private "pilot/gunner
teams" to kill wolves near McGrath as soon as this weekend was temporarily
halted Wednesday in a court challenge by seven residents and a national
Anchorage Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason ordered the aerial wolf-kill stopped
for as many as 10 days to give Friends of Animals and others a chance to argue
for a longer suspension in a lawsuit to permanently halt the program.
Alaska's wolf wars have begun anew. Wednesday's temporary restraining order is
Wolf control controversies have generated two statewide ballots and a national
tourism boycott. Whether wolves should be killed by people using aircraft, and
under what conditions, has been dividing Alaskans for years.
This time, the state Board of Game authorized a program allowing teams of private
pilots and shooters to kill 40 to 45 wolves in an area near McGrath where moose
hunting success has been down. People in McGrath had repeatedly petitioned the
board, saying they haven't been able to take enough moose for food.
Opponents have countered that moose populations in the area are stable or increasing
but there are signs of over-hunting near McGrath. Since the state's own goals
for moose numbers in that area have been met, they argued, killing wolves using
aircraft cannot be justified.
In a suit filed Friday, Friends of Animals and the McGrath residents asked the
court to declare the program illegal and cancel any aerial-shooting permits that
had been issued. A hearing on whether to issue a preliminary injunction that
could halt wolf control for months was set for Tuesday morning in Anchorage Superior
Court before Gleason.
The plaintiffs have raised "serious and substantial questions" about whether
state law allows a predator control program given current moose population estimates
in the McGrath area, and whether the Board of Game violated the state's open
meetings law when it took action on the wolf-kill issue earlier this year, Gleason
wrote in her order.
"Obviously, we're delighted that there's been a temporary restraining order so
that Judge Gleason can have an opportunity to evaluate the case fairly," said
Paul Joslin, one of the plaintiffs and the wildlife director of the Alaska Wildlife
Alliance. "It's a very important step."
McGrath resident Mike Fleagle, chairman of the Board of Game, would not comment
on Wednesday, saying he expected to testify at Tuesday's court hearing.
Whether delaying the program for six more days or longer would hurt the state's
goal of protecting moose calves depends on the weather, said Matt Robus, director
of the state Division of Wildlife Conservation.
"If it turns out that this period doesn't really have any decent conditions,
then it wouldn't make any difference," Robus said. "If it turns into a stretch
of nice weather ... all I can say is that wolves that make their living by predating
on moose calves or whatever would not have been removed."
Over the past decade, McGrath residents have reported killing 60 to 90 moose
each year from Game Management Unit 19D, but say they need 130 to 150 animals
per season, according to wildlife officials.
"People in the upper Kuskokwim drainage have been unable to get the food they
depend on since 1994," state assistant attorney general Kevin Saxby said during
the hearing on Wednesday.
The goal of increasing that harvest in a special area near McGrath drove a change
in state law last spring that allowed wolf control by private pilots under certain
conditions. In early summer, the department spent $103,000 transplanting 78 black
bears and nine brown bears from the area, also to increase moose calf survival.
In filings and court statements, Saxby argued that the bear removal appears to
have increased moose calf survival.
Stopping the predator control now -- just as wolves begin taking yearling calves
-- would be wrong, he said. "If we lose these calves, we have to start all over
again and redo this effort."
But wolf-kill opponents countered that waiting a few days to fully consider the
issue would not make or break a predator control program. But allowing teams
of pilots and gunners to kill wolves this weekend would eliminate them before
the group has a chance to argue that it's illegal.
"Clearly, it is a matter of law -- there is irreparable injury when the government
goes out to kill animals," attorney Jim Reeves told Gleason during the morning
hearing. "There is no imperative need to do this" now.
In her ruling on Wednesday, Gleason agreed.
"The State has already issued three aerial wolf-hunting permits, and (Saxby)
expects those permit holders to move forward with airborne shooting of the wolves
as soon as the weather permits," she wrote. "Assuming the weather is cooperative,
it appears undisputed that all of the wolves could be killed in relatively short
order, and possibly even before this court's determination."
The state said in a written statement dated Tuesday that it had approved the
wolf-kill teams. Robus on Wednesday would not name the team members.
Daily News reporter Doug O'Harra can be reached at email@example.com