Wolf-Kill Debate Won't Go Away

CONTROVERSY: Latest animal-rights claims are just not true, state officials say

Joel Gay / Anchorage Daily News / April 12, 2004

Alaska's controversial aerial wolf-kill programs are winding down for the winter, but the public opinion battle over predator control shows no signs of abating.

In recent weeks:

* The national animal-protection group Defenders of Wildlife ran a series of newspaper ads in Alaska and Outside slamming game management in the state.

* The ad campaign drew a rare rebuke from state officials for being inaccurate and misleading.

* The state's new wolf-kill programs prompted a scathing editorial from The New York Times.

* A group that unsuccessfully sued to stop lethal predator-control efforts last year has taken a new legal tack that could force state officials to justify their wolf-control methods in front of a jury.

"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."

Defenders spokeswoman Karen Deatherage countered that if anyone is guilty of 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."

Unlike in the Lower 48, 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 to 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, 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 erupted 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 an editorial March 14, The New York Times weighed in, saying, "It is now legal for private citizens to shoot wolves from airplanes and helicopters."

That's not true, Robus said. While helicopters are available for the department to use in the new programs, they're not allowed. The editorial suggests that any private citizen can participate, but Fish and Game has limited participation. In McGrath, three pilots received permits. For the Nelchina program, about 35 were permitted.

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 said, "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.

"There's a lot of hairsplitting in that letter," Deatherage said. "The department and Board of Game have put out desperate pieces of spin for the last six months, and they have misinformed the public by just providing snippets of information. When you look at the big picture of predator control in Alaska, it's getting uglier by the minute."

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. "Your donation will help us run ads like this across the nation and mobilize other wildlife supporters," it says.

"It's not totally a surprise," Robus said, but the ad is wrong. The state program is not trophy hunting but short-term management with specific goals.

"I understand perfectly that we're involved in something that a lot of people dislike intensely," he 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."

The whole predator-control program could come under review by a jury if a lawsuit filed by the Connecticut-based animal-rights group Friends of Animals and seven Alaskans goes to trial.

Last December, a Superior Court judge refused to block the McGrath wolf-control program. In late March the group filed an amended complaint, saying the state has not justified its predator-control efforts with biological data "but instead rests upon mere guesswork."

No trial date has been set.

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


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