Decision Expected in Lethal Wolf Control Program


Mary Pemberton / Associated Press / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / December 5, 2005


ANCHORAGE

An animal rights group waited Friday to find out if it has succeeded in putting a stop to a state-sponsored program allowing hunters to shoot wolves from airplanes in Alaska.

The Darien, Conn.-based Friends of Animals, and seven Alaska plaintiffs, asked a judge to grant a preliminary injunction to stop the aerial wolf control program intended to boost the moose population in rural McGrath, which has 470 people.

McGrath in Interior Alaska is off the road system and about 300 air miles from large grocery and department stores in Anchorage and Fairbanks. Residents have complained for a decade there are too few moose for food because they are being eaten by wolves and bears.

If the group fails to get an injunction, Friends of Animals president Priscilla Feral said Thursday a tourism boycott will be organized targeting Alaska's approximately $2 billion tourism business. Friends of Animals has 200,000 members.

Feral's group was behind a successful tourism boycott about a decade ago that resulted in then-Gov. Walter J. Hickel imposing a moratorium on wolf control in 1992. During that boycott, Friends of Animals launched 53 demonstrations called "howl-ins" in 51 cities around the country.

Superior Court Judge Sharon L. Gleason was expected to issue her decision Friday. She made clear during a five-hour hearing Tuesday that her role is limited in the emotionally charged case. She won't decide whether Alaska should have an aerial wolf control program, but whether the Board of Game acted legally in granting it, Gleason said.

Permits have already been approved for three pilot-and-hunter teams to shoot wolves in the McGrath area. Gleason issued a temporary restraining order Nov. 26, effectively grounding the teams.

The state wants to kill a few dozen wolves in a 530-square-mile area near McGrath to establish a moose nursery of sorts. Alaska has an estimated 8,000 to 11,000 wolves.

Before Alaska statehood in 1959, shooting wolves from airplanes was common practice. Aerial sport hunting was banned in 1972 but the law allowed aerial shooting for predator control. Alaska voters in 1996 and 2000 banned a similar practice known as land-and-shoot hunting.

The new aerial wolf control program was made possible by legislation put forward by state Sen. Ralph Seekins, R-Fairbanks, who has said his goal is to make sure people have enough to eat.

The state argues the program is needed because the moose population in the McGrath area has been depressed for years and harvest targets have not been met for a decade.

But plaintiffs say that a close look at Alaska Department of Fish and Game documents show that the moose population in the McGrath area is stable or increasing, and within population goals of between 3,000 and 3,500 moose.

Matt Robus, director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation, testified Tuesday that the situation in McGrath has improved. He said population estimates are hard to pin down, but he believes there are about 2,700 moose.

State wildlife biologists credit the relocation of 75 black bears and eight grizzlies this spring around McGrath with increasing the summer survival rate of moose calves by about 20 percent. The state spent about $100,000 on the bear relocation effort. Some of the bears later returned to the area.

Now, the state wants to remove between 35 and 45 wolves to save about 25 moose calves that otherwise likely would be eaten by wolves this winter. State lawyer Kevin Saxby said the state has about $1,300 invested so far in each moose calf that would be saved under the program.
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