Public Opinion Debate Continues on Wolf-Kill Programs

The Associated Press / Kenai Peninsula Clarion / April 12, 2004

ANCHORAGE - The public opinion battle over predator control continues even though Alaska's aerial wolf-kill programs are winding down for the winter.

"It's frustrating," said Matt Robus, head of the state's Division of Wildlife Conservation. "We don't dispute at all the controversial nature of this. All we ask is the real facts be the things we debate."

But Karen Deatherage, a spokeswoman for the national animal welfare group Defenders of Wildlife, contends that if anyone is spinning the facts, it's the state.

"They have misinformed the public by just providing snippets of information," she said. "That's what Defenders wanted to do, was provide the public with what's really going on out here."

The Defenders of Wildlife has run a series of newspaper ads in Alaska and Outside critical of game management in the state. The ad campaign drew a rare rebuke from state officials as inaccurate and misleading.

Wolf populations in Alaska have never been threatened or endangered. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates a statewide population that is growing slightly and now numbers 8,000-11,000 animals.

About 1,500 wolves are killed in Alaska every year, mostly by trappers. Sport hunting is allowed but makes up only a small percentage of the harvest, state Department of Fish and Game spokesman Bruce Bartley said. It's almost impossible for hunters on the ground to find and track wolves, he said.

Aerial hunting ended in 1972, when Congress passed the federal Airborne Hunting Act. And Alaskans voted, in 1996 and again in 2000, to prohibit another popular practice for killing wolves known as land-and-shoot hunting. Pilots could spot wolves from the air, then land and quickly shoot them.

But the state always has had authority to kill wolves from the air, provided it was to help moose and caribou stocks grow. The current controversy developed when state game managers enacted new aerial wolf-kill programs that leave the shooting to private pilots.

The state calls it predator control, with limits and controls. Opponents view it as sport hunting in disguise.

In late March, Defenders of Wildlife ran half-page ads in Anchorage and other Alaska cities blasting the Board of Game for decisions made earlier in the month. One new regulation allows bears to be killed as part of predator control. Another permits hunting of moose calves in areas where state biologists feel moose stocks are too high.

"What's the real story?" the ads ask. "First they say we need to kill wolves and bears because there aren't enough moose. ... Now they say there are too many moose and we need to kill moose calves."

Because the ads ran in Alaska, Robus told the Anchorage Daily News, "we felt that we couldn't allow things that were absolutely not true to be put out in front of the public."

In a letter to Defenders president Rodger Schlickeisen, Robus called several statements in the ads and on the group's Web site "simply untrue." Defenders had suggested that helicopters were being used to kill wolves and that the wolf kill was statewide.

But Deatherage stood by the ad campaign.

"We feel absolutely comfortable and confident in our ads," she said.

It's true that helicopters are not currently being used, she said, but the law allows their use. And while wolves are only targeted for control in certain areas, the number of areas approved for predator control more than doubled during the Game Board's March meeting.

Similarly, she said, it's true that sow bears and cubs are not being targeted for predator control, but the Game Board made it possible.

"When you look at the big picture of predator control in Alaska, it's getting uglier by the minute," Deatherage said.

The group isn't letting up. A full-page ad that ran Tuesday in The New York Times reads in part, "Trophy hunters are using airplanes to slaughter helpless wolves in Alaska. They can gun the wolves down from the air, or chase them to exhaustion in the deep snow - then land and shoot them point-blank."

The ad urges people to complain to Gov. Frank Murkowski and to make a tax-deductible contribution to Defenders.

"I understand perfectly that we're involved in something that a lot of people dislike intensely," Robus said. "I don't care if people don't like it. What I do care about is what people use to sway the undecided public. We should try to stick to the facts."


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