Wolf Control Contested

Mary Pemberton / Associated Press / Fairbanks Daily-News Miner / December 3, 2003

ANCHORAGE--Lawyers argued Tuesday in Superior Court over whether a state-sponsored predator control program allowing hunters to shoot wolves from airplanes should be permanently grounded.

The five-hour hearing was prompted by a Connecticut-based animal rights group, Friends of Animals, and seven Alaska plaintiffs, who are seeking a preliminary injunction to end the program intended to boost moose populations near McGrath.

The Interior village of 470 people relies on moose to eat and residents have complained for a decade that predators are killing too many.

The state responded last spring with a program to relocate brown and black bears, and recently issued permits to three pilot and hunter teams to begin shooting wolves.

Superior Court Judge Sharon L. Gleason granted a temporary restraining order last week while she decides whether the Board of Game's actions comply with state law. A ruling on the temporary injunction is expected by the end of the week.

Plaintiff's lawyer James Reeves said Alaska Department of Fish and Game documents reveal that there are 3,600 moose in the McGrath area--beyond the 3,000 to 3,500 population objective set by the Board of Game.

The state now says it can save 25 moose calves from being killed this winter by wolves if it kills between 35 and 45 wolves, Reeves said.

"How did we get to this point?" he asked the judge.

State lawyer Kevin Saxby argued that state law allows for the consideration of harvest objectives as well as population goals when it comes to aerial wolf control. He said the game board last year set a harvest number of between 130 and 150 moose, but 272 permit holders took only 98 moose.

Without aerial wolf control, there still will be too few moose for subsistence hunters in the McGrath area, he said.

"The injunction would prolong that situation," Saxby said.

He added that the state spent about $100,000 to relocate the bears and has about $1,300 invested in each moose calf that would be saved under the program this winter. If the injunction is granted, no one has discussed how the state might be reimbursed, Saxby said.

Matt Robus, director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation in the Department of Fish and Game, testified that the Legislature included harvest objectives in the state statute. And he said the board talked about harvest objectives for McGrath earlier this year.

Reeves contested that. He said each time the board talked about moose objectives for McGrath it was referring to population, not harvest.

The issue is key. Depleted numbers of moose in the McGrath area have been used to support arguments in favor of aerial wolf control.

Robus testified that new data suggests there are more moose in the McGrath area than previously thought. But he said the harvest issue remains a problem.

"In our judgment we still are not meeting the lower end of the harvest objective," Robus said.

Former Board of Game member Vic VanBallenberghe testified that the board is underestimating the number of moose harvested. The board is not considering those taken illegally and those taken legally but not reported. Once those are factored in, the harvest is closer to 134 animals for fall 2002, he said, within the harvest objective range.

Reeves said the state supplied no evidence that a shortage of moose in McGrath necessitates the "most extreme predator control."

"We have no evidence that anyone didn't get a moose," he said.

Moose and other game were plentiful in the McGrath area until the mid-1990s, said Greg Roczicka of Bethel, a former game board member who attended the hearing.

"Now it is almost a biological desert as far as moose are concerned," he said. "When the moose and caribou are gone, the country dies. There is nothing for people to eat, animals to eat. ... You go to eating pike or what fish you can get."


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