Judge Delays Aerial Wolf-Kill

SUIT: Predator control called off to give plaintiffs time to make case

Doug O'Harra / Anchorage Daily News / November 27, 2003

A 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 animal-welfare group.

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 a skirmish.

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 do'harra@adn.com

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