Judge Allows Aerial Wolf Control

Staff and Wire Reports / Fairbanks Daily News- Miner / December 6, 2003

Wolf hunters can start shooting wolves from airplanes near McGrath after an Alaska judge Friday in Anchorage rejected an attempt by an animal rights group to stop a state-sponsored predator control program.

Superior Court Judge Sharon L. Gleason refused to grant an injunction to stop the lethal wolf-control program intended to boost the moose population around McGrath, a village of 470 people in Interior Alaska.

Connecticut-based Friends of Animals requested the injunction last week, shortly after state wildlife officials announced they had issued permits to three pilot-gunner teams to begin shooting approximately 40 wolves in a 1,700-square-mile area around the village. The program has been at a standstill since Nov. 26.
"We'll pick up where we left off," said Matt Robus, director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, who was in Fairbanks attending meetings when he heard the news.
The state planned to contact the three pilots who have permits on Friday to let them know they could start shooting wolves whenever they want to. Permits must be picked up in McGrath and only one pilot, who happens to live in McGrath, has picked up a permit, said Robus.

Friends of Animals, meanwhile, intends to pick up where it left off a decade ago by organizing a nationwide tourism boycott targeting Alaska's $2 billion tourism business, the same tactic the group used in the early '90s to halt the state's predator control program under then-Gov. Walter Hickel.

"We're hoping what the state won't do is rush out and annihilate the wolves," said Friends of Animals president Priscilla Feral, adding there is a possibility of further legal action.

When hunters begin shooting wolves depends on the conditions, Robus said.

"It's all condition based," he said. "If the snow is good for tracking animals and the weather is good to fly, they can begin as soon as they pick up their permit."

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

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.

Board of Game chairman Mike Fleagle, who also lives in McGrath and has been pushing for wolf control for years, applauded Gleason's decision to let the program go forward.

"We didn't feel there was any real room for a challenge," said Fleagle, who was attending meetings at Doyon Ltd. in Fairbanks when he heard the decision. "We're mandated to manage wildlife and restore abundance or halt the decline of populations because of predation. We are statutorily and constitutionally mandated to do this."

According to state wildlife biologists, the moose population around McGrath increased but the number of harvested moose remains well below expectations. Villagers in and around McGrath say they need about 150 moose a year to feed their families and harvest in recent years has been around 90.

Friends of Animals' lawyer James Reeves argued the state is underestimating the harvest by not fully taking into account the number of illegal moose taken.

McGrath residents have complained for a decade that there are too few moose for food because they are being eaten by wolves and bears and the Bush village has become the focal point of Alaska's wolf-control debate.

The state wants to kill about 40 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.
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 spent about $100,000 on the bear relocation effort and has about $1,300 invested so far in each moose calf that would be saved under the program, said state lawyer Kevin Saxby.

While the program will be allowed to move forward, Fleagle wondered for how long.

"We're probably going to see an appeal to the Supreme Court, that would be my guess," he predicted. "They're going to try every method available to shut this down.

"As long as the program is alive there is going to be an effort to kill it, whether it's through the court system, ballot initiatives or tourism boycotts," he said.
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 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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