Wolf Kill Clears Hurdle

MCGRATH: Judge says state law was followed; hunt could start today

Joel Gay / Anchorage Daily News / December 6, 2003

An Anchorage judge on Friday cleared the way for a state-sponsored plan to shoot some three dozen wolves from airplanes this winter around the Interior village of McGrath -- perhaps starting as soon as today.

The decision by Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason also could trigger a tourism boycott, although opponents of the wolf-kill plan said Friday they would exhaust other legal remedies before urging tourists to cancel next summer's reservations for Alaska.

In a 14-page ruling, Gleason refused to extend a temporary injunction against the predator-control program she issued last week. She found the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the state Board of Game had followed state law in approving the plan, contrary to opponents' claims.

State biologists believe that eliminating about 40 wolves from 1,700 square miles around McGrath will allow the upper Kuskokwim River moose herd to flourish, eventually providing more meat for local subsistence hunters.

Game Board chairman Mike Fleagle said Gleason's ruling vindicates the state and could portend a new era of predator control in which small numbers of wolves are killed to help boost moose and caribou populations for human hunters.

"The board did everything it was required to do to make the decision. I was pleased to see the judge find it was done appropriately and properly," said Fleagle, a McGrath resident. "I think the public knows we're not in danger of losing our wolf population."

Opponents decried Gleason's ruling but said the matter is not final.

"We regard it as losing a round," said Priscilla Feral, president of the national animal-rights group Friends of Animals, which sued to halt the program. "I expect there will be further legal proceedings."

The judge's action Friday denied a permanent injunction; the groups can still press forward with their lawsuit in state court.

But time is working against them, Feral acknowledged. As of early Friday afternoon, the state had issued permits to one pilot/gunner team in McGrath and could issue two other permits shortly. With the legal hurdle cleared, Fish and Game officials said the hunts could begin as soon as weather allows. Friday afternoon, McGrath residents said the weather this weekend looked favorable.

Still, Feral said, "I hope the state isn't going to rush out this weekend and annihilate these wolves before the court system resolves this case."

Feral and her group, which has about 200,000 members nationwide, has threatened to promote a tourism boycott if the McGrath program begins. On Friday, she said the group would hold back until it has exhausted its judicial remedies.

But that could change this weekend, she added. "I can't speculate on what might happen if they go out" and start shooting wolves, Feral said.

At McGuire's Tavern, a McGrath watering hole, owner Eep Anderson said he expected a jubilant atmosphere when local residents drifted in later Friday night. "I think it's a real good deal," he said, "but it should've been done a long time ago."

Anderson hunted wolves professionally, shooting them from airplanes when it was legal and then through land-and-shoot hunting, but quit after the bounty program ended in the 1970s, he said. He recently applied for a permit but hasn't gotten it yet, he said.

Fish and Game officials said they have authorized three "pilot/gunner" teams to participate, but as of Friday afternoon only one of the pairs had picked up the permit, McGrath residents Lewis "Lucky" Egrass and his brother Gary. Fish and Game would not name the other two teams selected until the permits are picked up.

Lewis Egrass did not return calls to the Daily News, but Anderson said the Egrasses shouldn't have any problem killing wolves this weekend if he chooses to fly. The conditions looked good, with clear skies and about a foot of snow, he said.
"When the sun comes up a little bit you can track 'em pretty easily," Anderson said. "I don't see any reason they can't knock 'em off. They'll be easy to hunt" because the wolves are no longer conditioned to fear airborne hunters, he said. "They're not going to have any problem. There's plenty of them around."

McGrath-area residents will be happy to hear that wolf-control opponents lost in court Friday, said Ray Collins, a longtime resident and member of the state-sponsored team that designed the predator-control plan.

"It's hard to believe they're concerned about 40 wolves when we've got thousands around the state," he said.

State biologists estimate there are between 8,000 and 11,000 wolves throughout Alaska. They are classified as neither endangered nor threatened here.

Others see those 40 wolves as significant. Paul Joslin, one of seven individuals who joined the suit against the state and a spokesman for the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, said the wolf deaths should be balanced against the potential cost of a tourism boycott.

"We want Gov. Murkowski to step in and avoid this clash," he said. "To go to such an extreme, to fly in the face of two public votes and risk enraging a nation -- what you would hope is for common sense to prevail."

Murkowski spokesman John Manly said the governor isn't likely to bow to pressure if a tourism boycott begins.

The travel industry is starting to feel some reaction to the state's wolf-control plans, through e-mails and phone calls, but the industry's reaction is mixed. The Alaska State Chamber of Commerce recently came out in support of the state's position, while the Alaska Travel Industry Association is watching closely.

"Anytime someone talks about boycott, it's scary," said Ron Peck, president of the association. With 850 members in his association ranging from small eco-tourism operations to cruise ship lines, "We have people on both sides of the fence. It's a difficult issue for us. And frankly, the difficult thing is that the people that may be impacted the hardest are the ones that are the most eco-sensitive," he said.

His board has told him to continue collecting information but has not yet taken a position. The Alaska Wilderness Recreation and Tourism Association voiced concern about the McGrath plan but fell short of calling for the state to back off.

But some Alaska residents, including Game Board chairman Fleagle, believe the fear is overblown.

"I'm disappointed that people have to use terroristic means to make a point, but I think most people in the general public know these are animal-rights extremists that have to resort to these tactics, and not always successfully," he said.

Public opinion on wolf control is swinging, as reflected in Gleason's decision Friday, Fleagle said. "Granted, the 1950s were an extreme when we treated wolves like vermin," he said. "Through the course of time I think we've seen it switch to the other side, where we granted way too much protection. But I think the public knows we're not in danger of losing our wolf population" and that careful management is appropriate.

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

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