No One Budges at Wolf Debate

TV: Proponents, opponents of aerial kill square off in front of a camera

Joel Gay / Anchorage Daily News / December 4, 2003

Wolf-control opponent Paul Joslin of Alaska Wildlife Alliance engages state Sen. Ralph Seekins in a debate during taping of the TV program "Wolf Control in Alaska" Wednesday afternoon at KAKM. The show discusses the state's plan to shoot wolves from airplanes. It will air Dec. 12 on ARCS in rural Alaska. (Photo by Erik Hill / Anchorage Daily News)
Rick Steiner of the University of Alaska, left, moderates the "Wolf Control in Alaska" TV program featuring panelists state Sen. Ralph Seekins; Mike Fleagle, Board of Game chairman and chief of McGrath Native Village Council; Matt Robus, Division of Wildlife Conservation director; Paul Joslin, Alaska Wildlife Alliance wildlife director; wildlife biologist Gordon Haber; and Priscilla Feral, Friends of Animals president. The show will air Dec. 12 on ARCS in rural Alaska. (Photo by Erik Hill / Anchorage Daily News)

Hackles rose and fur flew under the glare of television studio lights Wednesday when animal-welfare advocates debated predator-control proponents over the state's plan to shoot wolves from airplanes.

"Draconian" is what Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, called the views of state Sen. Ralph Seekins, R-Fairbanks, whose legislation makes aerial wolf control possible this winter near McGrath. "I know your personal philosophy," she said, "and it's from another age."

"You're from another world," Seekins quipped.

Wildlife biologist Gordon Haber, a consistent critic of state game management, told the director of Alaska's Division of Wildlife Conservation, Matt Robus, that the state doesn't know what's happening with moose near McGrath.

Paul Joslin of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance likened the Board of Game's proposed McGrath aerial wolf-kill to a "posse in the sky."

Game Board chairman Mike Fleagle said groups like Joslin's are trying to "personify and deify" the wolf.

Three against three in the studios at KAKM, these leading voices in the wolf-control arguments threw their best at each other. Riding herd was Rick Steiner, a University of Alaska professor who produces one or two television shows a year on contentious natural resources issues.

"I think the people of Alaska have a right to hear these people put their best face forward," Steiner said.
The wolf-control issue has boiled in Alaska for decades but has been relatively quiet since voters banned land-and-shoot wolf hunting in 2000.

Seekins, frustrated at the lack of official wolf-reduction efforts, pushed legislation last spring that gave the Game Board the power to conduct aerial wolf control.

"We can't convince wolves to be vegetarians. We have to eliminate the competition ... to feed Alaskans," Seekins said.

That's barbaric and out of touch with Alaska and the rest of the world, said Feral, whose Connecticut-based Friends of Animals boasts about 165 members in Alaska and 200,000 nationwide. "In 2003, it really is an ethical outrage to be blasting wolves with shotguns."

Her group sued the state to halt the McGrath wolf kill. If that fails, Feral said, they will advocate a tourism boycott, a strategy used twice to combat official wolf-kill programs.

The state has proposed to kill about three dozen wolves in and around a 530-square-mile area near McGrath.

State biologists believe that, with less predation, the area will act like a moose nursery and help the moose population grow in the surrounding area.

Fleagle, who lives in McGrath and has been a wolf-control advocate for years, said opponents are afraid it will work. Fish and Game sees the McGrath plan as a possible blueprint for other areas of Alaska.

But biologists at Wednesday's debate couldn't even agree that moose numbers around McGrath are depressed. The state's figures "don't meet the most elementary scientific standards," Haber said, and don't support the contention that wolf control is needed.

Robus, the state's chief wildlife biologist, disputed that, saying the department has good data that some, including Haber, have misinterpreted. He added that the department has a constitutional mandate to keep game populations high enough for all users. "It's our job to tweak the natural system," which sometimes calls for removing predators.

It's a matter of values, Robus said. Biologically, Alaska can afford to lose three dozen wolves in McGrath out of an estimated 8,000 to 11,000 statewide to create more moose for people to shoot and eat.

Feral argued that values are changing. A recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey found that "66 million people view animals as something other than to eat," far more than the number of people who consider themselves hunters. "They're not picking up their shotgun to have a relationship with an animal," she said.

Only 14 percent of Alaskans hold hunting licenses, yet hunters and trappers have a lock on the Game Board because of outdated attitudes by powerful legislators like Ralph Seekins, Feral said. "Ralph has Draconian views toward living animals that are, frankly, obnoxious," she said.

That anti-hunting attitude may be prevalent Outside, Seekins said, but not in Alaska. "My three grandsons, my daughter -- they don't buy (hunting) licenses, but they don't want to be counted on your side," he told Feral. "Their sustenance comes from wild game."

"This isn't about wolves," Seekins went on. "This is about who gets to control Alaska."

Joslin called for the two sides to find common ground. "There's such a small gap you could easily find a solution" that doesn't lead to lawsuits and boycotts yet still provides moose for rural hunters.

Seekins didn't buy it. "They want us to compromise and compromise and compromise until there's nothing left," he said.

Feral agreed, roundabout. "Compromise was (former governor) Tony Knowles," she said. "The current administration doesn't give a hoot about diversity of opinion."

She and Joslin called for new voices on the Game Board, including nonconsumptive users such as professional wildlife photographers. Board chairman Fleagle said he would like to include such a voice, but the board is appointed by the governor.

And besides, he added, "It's not just a hunting issue. The problem is groups like that of Priscilla Feral" that see wolves as animals "that should not be touched." He cautioned viewers of the taped debate to "take what you hear (from the wolf advocates) with a grain of salt."

Rural Alaskans will get to see the full debate at 8 p.m. Dec. 12 on ARCS, the Alaska Rural Communications Service. The show also may be broadcast in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, but no dates have been set, Steiner said.

Daily News reporter Joel Gay can be reached at or at 257-4310.

'WOLF CONTROL IN ALASKA' will air 8 p.m. December 12 on ARCS in rural Alaska. The show may broadcast in urban areas, but no dates have been set.


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