Judge Approves Lethal Wolf Control Program

Mary Pemberton / Associated Press / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / December 5, 2003


An Alaska judge Friday rejected an attempt by an animal rights group to stop a state-sponsored program allowing hunters to shoot wolves from airplanes in Alaska.

That opens the door to a threatened nationwide tourism boycott targeting Alaska's $2 billion tourism business, the same tactic that halted a similar wolf eradication effort a decade ago.

The Darien, Conn.-based Friends of Animals, and seven Alaska plaintiffs, asked Superior Court Judge Sharon L. Gleason to grant a preliminary injunction to stop the lethal wolf control program intended to boost the moose population in McGrath, a village of 470 people in Interior Alaska.

Gleason refused to grant the injunction and lifted a temporary restraining order that had kept three pilot-and-hunter teams grounded since Nov. 26.

Friends of Animals president Priscilla Feral said she would spend the weekend considering the possibility of further legal action.

"We're hoping what the state won't do is rush out and annihilate the wolves," she said.

In an interview with The Associated Press earlier this week, Feral pledged to organize a tourism boycott if the state insists on killing wolves.

Friends of Animals, which touts 200,000 members, 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.

McGrath 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 that there are too few moose for food because they are being eaten by wolves and bears.

The state wants to kill the wolves in approximately a 1,700-square-mile area near McGrath to establish a moose nursery of sorts. The program began this spring with the relocation of 75 black bears and eight grizzlies. State wildlife biologist say moving the bears increased the summer survival rate of moose calves by about 20 percent.

The state spent about $100,000 on the bear relocation effort.

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. The state has about $1,300 invested so far in each moose calf that would be saved under the program, said state lawyer Kevin Saxby.

Saxby said Friday there were no legal challenges standing in the way of the pilots and hunters taking to the air immediately.

"There is no pending order that would keep them grounded," he said.

Gleason said that the Alaska Board of Game had the authority to approve the program this fall even if the moose population was fine. The game board could base its decision solely on whether harvest objectives for the McGrath area were being met, she said.

That's because the language in the bill was changed to delete the more specific phrase "prey population objectives" and replace it with "objectives," as in harvest objectives, Gleason said.

Matt Robus, director of the state Division of Wildlife Conservation, testified Tuesday that the moose population around McGrath had increased but the number of harvested moose remained well below expectations. The fall harvest objective for the McGrath area was between 130 and 150 moose, but only about 70 were taken, he said.

Plaintiffs' lawyer James Reeves argued that the law does not refer to harvest objectives but is talking instead about population objectives. He said the state is underestimating the harvest by not fully taking into account the number of illegal moose taken.
Lethal wolf control has been an emotionally charged issue in Alaska for decades. Before statehood in 1959, shooting wolves from airplanes was common practice. But aerial sport hunting was banned in 1972. The law, however, did allow for aerial shooting for predator control. Alaska voters in 1996 and 2000 banned a similar practice known as land-and-shoot hunting.

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