Judge Set to Decide on Aerial Wolf Hunt

LAWSUIT: Superior Court considers arguments from Friends of Animals, state

Joel Gay / Anchorage Daily News / December 3, 2003


Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason heard arguments Tuesday in the suit, brought by a national animal rights group and seven Alaska residents against the state, seeking to block the wolf kill.

On their behalf, Anchorage attorney Jim Reeves said the proposed McGrath wolf control program is neither warranted nor legal. State game managers and biologists have skipped necessary procedural steps and don't have the biological data that state law requires before shooting the animals from low-flying airplanes, he argued Tuesday.

"We got here because of politics; we didn't get here because of biology," Reeves said.

State attorney Kevin Saxby countered that the McGrath plan is well documented, both biologically and administratively, and is long overdue. Moose will flourish and subsistence hunters will benefit when the wolves are gone, especially after an effort this spring that removed predatory bears and boosted moose calf survival rates, he said.

"The point of the program now is to grab the benefit," Saxby said.

Gleason started Tuesday's hearing by acknowledging the complex and emotional nature of the wolf-control issue, especially shooting wolves from airplanes. But because the law still allows aerial shooting as part of formal predator-control programs, she said, "My primary role is to determine whether the Board of Game complied with the applicable laws."

Shooting wolves from airplanes was common practice before statehood in 1959, but aerial sport hunting was banned nationwide in 1972. In 1996 and again in 2000, Alaska voters outlawed a similar practice known as land-and-shoot hunting. Pilots would track wolves from the air, then land, hop out and shoot.

But the law still allows the state to authorize aerial shooting for predator control. The Alaska Board of Game approved such a program around McGrath, and the Department of Fish and Game was ready to permit as many as three pilot/gunner teams to begin shooting when Gleason last week temporarily halted the effort.

Opponents of the kill, including the Connecticut-based group Friends of Animals, contend that the Game Board failed to meet several legal hurdles, including one of the most basic: proving a shortage of moose in hunting unit 19D-East.

Using Fish and Game estimates, attorney Reeves calculated that the area contains 4,000 moose or more, which is above the minimum population goal of 3,000 to 3,500. There's no need to kill wolves there, he said.

Reeves' estimate was disputed by Matt Robus, director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation, who said population estimates are hard to pin down, but the actual population is closer to 2,700, well below the goal.

He also noted that the moose are distributed unevenly, making it difficult for local hunters to achieve a harvest goal of 130 to 150 moose per year. Robus said hunters hadn't shot that many in 10 years.

Fish and Game contends that by eliminating wolves in and around a small portion of the hunting unit, the 530-square-mile experimental micro-management area, moose numbers will rise, eventually creating more for subsistence hunters, he said.

Wolf-protection advocates also challenged the harvest figures. The reported harvest is below the Game Board's goals, Reeves said. But there is also an unreported harvest, which boosts the total to an acceptable range, Reeves said.

Robus disagreed, saying a new permit system gives Fish and Game a better estimate of hunter success than before. Since the permit hunt began, the average moose harvest is closer to 70 per year, well below the goal, he said.

The department's bear-removal project this spring provided another source of disagreement in court Tuesday. To improve moose calf survival around McGrath, biologists tranquilized and relocated nearly 90 black and brown bears from the area.

It worked, said state attorney Saxby, producing nearly 80 calves more than usual. But the program's success is threatened unless the wolf-control program continues, he added. Biologists believe wolves could kill 25 of the new calves, plus 100 adult moose.

Reeves countered that shooting as many as 45 wolves to save some 25 moose calves makes little sense.

Neither attorney would speculate on how Gleason might rule. She said in court that she expected to have a decision by the end of the week.

If she rules against Friends of Animals and the seven Alaskans, Fish and Game could issue permits immediately to three private pilots and gunners to start shooting the McGrath-area wolves. Whether they will have the necessary daylight and snow cover to find and shoot the wolves is another question, biologists said this week.

Daily News reporter Joel Gay can be reached at jgay@adn.com or at 257-4310.


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