Weather Puts Off Wolf Kill


McGRATH: Aerial hunters blame cold, little fresh snow for poor start


Joel Gay / Anchorage Daily News / December 10, 2003


Three teams of aerial wolf hunters are in McGrath, poised to begin eliminating the first of an estimated 40 wolves as soon as hunting conditions allow, but the most experienced of the shooters says it could be a long wait.

Between the short days, recent cold temperatures and lack of fresh snow, "it's not really ideal," said Lewis "Lucky" Egrass. "They're not standing out in the open, put it that way."

Egrass, 45, grew up in McGrath and has been shooting wolves from airplanes most of his life. But it takes the right combination of sunlight, temperature, snow conditions and luck to be successful, he said, and in the four days of shooting that has been allowed, he and his partner, brother Gary Egrass, haven't pulled the trigger yet.

Nor had the other teams as of Tuesday afternoon. With clouds and snow predicted for McGrath in coming days, Alaska's first extensive aerial predator control program in more than a decade may be on hold until conditions improve.

The state-authorized program aims to eliminate five wolf packs from a 1,700-square-mile area around McGrath. State biologists believe that reducing predation by wolves and bears in the area will help the upper Kuskokwim River moose herd grow, eventually providing local subsistence hunters with more moose to eat.

Opponents of the control plan lost their first bid to kill it but have vowed to continue battling. An Anchorage judge last Friday ruled that the state Board of Game and the Department of Fish and Game had properly structured the program and dismissed a temporary halt she had issued earlier.

The judge's ruling allowed the state-permitted pilot-gunner teams to begin, and last Saturday was the potential first day of shooting. But while the McGrath region had the bright sun needed to reveal wolves' tracks, the daily high temperatures never rose above 17 below. None of the teams flew.

The temperature warmed Monday and Tuesday, Egrass said.

"But we haven't had fresh snow in eight or nine days," he said, which made it difficult to find the animals. He sighted two packs, he said, but neither was in a position to shoot. Although the program is considered predator control, Fish and Game requires the shooters to retrieve the wolves' carcasses. Egrass said he wouldn't target wolves on a ridge top or mountainside where retrieving them would be difficult.

Egrass has shot hundreds of wolves since the 1970s, he said. As a full-time trapper, he used the land-and-shoot method until restrictions made it unfeasible, he said. As recently as 2001, he shot wolves in a state-sponsored predator control program around McGrath, before the practice was made illegal in a statewide referendum.

The other teams selected for the McGrath program have less experience, according to applications obtained from Fish and Game.

Kenai radio station owner John Davis and his son, Jeremy, a big game guide and lodge owner from Port Alsworth, picked up their permit in McGrath on Tuesday. Both have extensive flying and wolf-hunting experience, according to their applications.

Also selected were Arthur Wikle Jr. and Randy Price, both of Glennallen. Wikle has been an agricultural pilot in South Dakota and has 4,000 hours of aerial predator control Outside, he said. His Alaska experience stems from when land-and-shoot wolf hunting was legal.

Egrass said he hadn't talked to the other pilot-gunner teams, but hopes they don't rush the predator-control effort. "Our biggest fear is that we don't want people to come in that don't know what they're doing and 'educate' the wolves," he said. If the gunners shoot and miss, the wolves will become wary of airplanes.

"They get smart real fast. They'll hang in the trees every time they hear a Super Cub," Egrass said.

He would prefer to postpone the program until February, he said. The days are longer and the wolves follow the moose out of the highlands and onto the river corridors, where they're easier to target. "My feeling is that it's too early," he said.

In the meantime, he will continue to look around when possible, Egrass said. He's not doing it for the money -- the only compensation is the value of the carcasses -- but as a public service, he said.

But with aviation fuel at $3.75 a gallon, he can't afford to burn up too much gas searching for wolves.

"I'm paying for this out of my pocket," he said. "I've still got a job. I can't just drop everything to harvest wolves."

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



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