Hunting the Hunters

Alaska leaders condone the use of airplanes and hunters to kill wolves. Activists are doing all they can to get the 'money shot' - a dead wolf - in hopes of ending the hunt

Cover Story / Amanda Coyne / Anchorage Press / April 16, 2004

On a recent Sunday morning, Scott Moran and Matt Gallagher bantered the way 26-year-old men do when 5,000 feet above interior Alaska. As the Cessna 185 banked over the Nelchina basin, they talked about cabins in the woods, owning their own airplanes and how girls from California are all crazy. They shared their hopes and dreams, and where they see themselves in 20 years. They looked out at the landscape, all the white and emptiness and jagged, brown peaks, and a sense of serenity and freedom washed over them.

When I looked out the window, it sent shooting pangs of loneliness through my heart. Then the Cessna flu took hold, and I got sick to my stomach.

Moran is an animal rights activist working for the Wildlife Alliance, a local animal rights group fighting Governor Frank Murkowski's aerial wolf hunting program. Gallagher, a private pilot, doesn't belong to the Alliance. Moran paid him 50 bucks, gas money, to take him up to look for wolves. I paid Gallagher 50 bucks to watch Moran look for wolves. I'm flying with them because the state won't allow me to fly with the wolf hunters.  

Occasionally, one of the men said to the other, "Look over there. Is that anything?"

"Just moose," the other replied.

There were lots of moose tracks out there, a few lonely snowmachine tracks, but there was no sign of what Moran was searching for - a wolf, preferably a wolf just about to be shot. The next best thing would be a dead or dying wolf, one recently shot as part of Murkowski's "predator-control" program.

Moran had his digital camera ready to take some shots of his own. A photo of a dead wolf might just be enough to deflate Alaska's wolf hunt.

"Here wolfy wolfy, here wolfy wolfy," Moran called out in a sing-song voice.

I started singing a Duran Duran song. "I'm on the hunt, I'm after you. Mouth is alive with juices like wine. And I'm hungry like the wolf."

Gallagher laughed louder than Moran. People with causes tend to take themselves seriously. This was Moran's photo hunt, after all. Gallagher and I were just along for the ride. Moran doesn't look like an animal lover. He sports a crew-cut and intense, blue eyes. He could be an NRA poster boy.  Nevertheless, his mission is to end the controversial wolf-control program, which Governor Murkowski's appointed Board of Fish and Game enacted late last year.

The program is meant to boost moose populations in parts of the state by reducing wolf numbers. Unlike states in the Lower 48, where few wolves exist, Alaska has somewhere between 9,000 and 11,000. Some state wildlife biologists say that trimming back the wolf population will ensure that moose, as well as caribou, are available to hunters and residents of small, isolated communities, where foraging off the land and animals is still a way of life. The state has issued permits to private hunters, allowing them to shoot wolves from airplanes in the McGrath area. In the Nelchina basin, near Glennallen, hunters are allowed to find wolves from the air, then land near them and shoot them immediately. As of Tuesday, April 14, 141 wolves had been killed between both areas. The hunt ends April 30 and is scheduled to resume in fall, when two more areas will be targeted for wolf control.

Wolves were once demonized in America, blamed for killing cattle and other livestock. Some people even claimed wolves killed people. But recent decades have been kinder to the animal. Biologists understand the importance of the wolf's place in the food chain, and people have romanticized the shy creature. Indeed, if you look a wolf closely in the eyes, it's hard not to think the animal is wise and misunderstood.

All of which is why animal activists are deeply upset about the state's "predator control" program. They dispute the Fish and Game Board's claims about declining moose populations, offering their own numbers showing moose numbers are remaining stable. The board says it's going by numbers provided by the Department of Fish and Game, although the board did approve the wolf hunt in at least one area against the department's advice. That added fuel to accusations that the board has been intent on killing wolves, regardless of what science says.

The board and state game biologists question the activists' motives; some have gone as far to say that groups fighting to protect wolves are doing so to raise funds. State officials also believe activists don't always acknowledge the issue in all of its complexity, how the wolf hunt encompasses a way of life in rural Alaska, how it feeds into the subsistence debate.

The battle over wolf control is far from new. It's played out for decades, with many of the same people fighting on both sides. Since the 1950s, when the state halted the federal government's program of rampant wolf killing, anytime somebody has whispered "predator control," petitions have been signed, letters have been sent, protests have been organized, boycotts have been called for. Now, just like before, some East Coast activists are calling on tourists not to visit Alaska until the state stops the aerial wolf hunt.

Murkowski spokesman John Manly says the governor's office has received about 17,000 comments about the wolf issue, most of which have come from out-of-state wolf sympathizers, and he isn't budging.  

Activists are scrambling to change the mind of a governor who believes activists and environmentalists are the bane of many of Alaska's economic and development plans. What they need, they believe, is a galvanizing symbol, something simple yet highly emotional. A photograph might do the trick, one of a hunter shooting a wolf, a recently skinned carcass, or even just a pool of blood.

"Here wolfy wolfy," Scott Moran said again.

Three major groups are working to stop the wolf hunt: the Wildlife Alliance, Defenders of Wildlife and Friends of Animals. It seems there's more than a little bit of rivalry among them. The groups disagree on how to fight the battle, and they talk behind each other's back about which group is more effective.

But they do agree on one thing: Nothing speaks more loudly than an image.

Environmentalists have long seen the power of cameras in furthering their causes. Scenes of Julia "Butterfly" Hill living in a 200-foot-tall redwood led to the federal government protecting a swath of the ancient trees in Northern California, for instance. PETA routinely shops horrific images of slaughtered and maimed animals to the media.

But images can be misleading, too, which is why the state of Alaska isn't keen on letting a reporter fly around with wolf hunters. For example, many environmental groups have run scenic shots of mountains and streams in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But as most Alaskans know, oil drilling isn't proposed in ANWR's mountains but on the desolate coastal plain. The images are meant for a national audience, many of whom have never been to Alaska but have the power to sway opinion.

Wolf activists realize that all the news stories in the world, all the advertisements they buy, all the editorials they get published in newspapers won't have nearly the impact of a photograph or video of a dead or dying wolf. It worked in 1994 when Gordon Haber, a wildlife scientist funded by Friends of Animals, videotaped a state Fish and Game agent executing a trapped wolf under another predator-control program.

There was a mix of envy and awe in Scott Moran's voice when he brought up Gordon Haber's name as we kept our eyes focused below on the Nelchina basin, looking for anything that might be a sign of a wolf. Of the 25,000 square miles that make up the basin, 10,000 of those - an area roughly the size of New Hampshire - are open to the hunt. If every person who was issued a permit to hunt wolves were out at the same time at the Nelchina basin, there would be  34 planes circling the sky. We didn't see any of them.
"It's like finding a needle in a haystack," Moran said.

As we flew, I asked what Matt Gallagher, the pilot, thought about the issue. He doesn't have a stake. He was just there to float through the sky, as gentle and unassuming as possible. Gallagher said he has kept up with the reams of newspaper articles on the subject. He's read the letters and the editorials that go back and forth about the value of hunting wolves, about whether such a program is scientifically justified. He's heard stories about the plight of the moose-less in rural Alaska, and that pulls at him some. Then again, he said, he doesn't like the idea of killing wolves for sport. Neither is he sure whether it's right to kill one animal to make room for another, which will eventually be hunted, too. Yet, as a born-and-reared Alaskan, he doesn't necessarily approve of activists, especially those out-of-towners, telling his state how to conduct its affairs.

"It's all really confusing," he said.

He seems to be a pretty good representative of the way many Alaskans feel about this issue.

I'd like to see how the state-sanctioned program is progressing, but everybody from Murkowski's office to the Department of Fish and Game has denied reporters and photographers the opportunity. They say the wolf hunt is being carried out by private hunters, so it's up to those hunters to decide whether to allow a journalist to come along. Bruce Bartley, a spokesman for the Department of Fish and Game, has warned hunters against it.

But if this is the most humane way to conduct the program, and if private hunters are acting as state agents, shouldn't a reporter be able to go along to document the hunt?

"Absolutely not" Bartley said. "It wouldn't do anybody any good. It's not in our best interests. It would further inflame an already sensitive issue.

"We've been burned before by reporters and photographers."

The federal government banned aerial wolf hunting in 1972; although Alaska was allowed to do so if wolves were found disrupting game populations. In 1992, Governor Wally Hickel's administration proposed aerial wolf hunting when some state biologists said wolves were killing too many moose in areas around Fairbanks. The public outcry was so great that it ended the program before it even began. Hickel's office got 100,000 letters against the program, a tourism boycott threat and cries from across the country that Alaska is brutal and uncivilized.

In response, the state board of game proposed another form of wolf control: snaring. That worked for  a while, until Gordon Haber, armed with a video camera, came upon three trapped wolves.

Haber, 61, who divides his time between Anchorage and Fairbanks, is a strident, hard-spoken man, known by some as arrogant and contentious. He came to Alaska in 1966 and has studied and followed wolves ever since. He says he holds a master's in biology from the University of Northern Michigan and a Ph.D in zoology from the University of British Columbia. Alaska wolves were the subject of both his thesis and his Ph.D dissertation, which alone was 815 pages, he said.  

Much of what he says about wolves is all but snickered at amongst state biologists. Bruce Bartley, the Fish and Game spokesman, calls Haber an opportunist and questions his scientific methods. For his part, Haber has nothing good to say about Bartley, using plenty of expletives to describe him.

One of Haber's most controversial theories is just how disruptive it is when a wolf pack loses a member. He describes the pack in human emotional terms, which some wildlife biologists frown upon. The Margaret wolf pack in Denali National Park recently lost its alpha male to snaring. Prior to that, the 12 pack members were inseparable, Haber said. Now they're scattered and dispersed. Packs are family units, Haber said, containing brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, with sophisticated kinds of interactions and interdependencies. But it's exactly this anthropomorphizing of wolves that gets him in trouble. It doesn't help that Haber has a habit of calling the state biologists ignorant and backwards, and at catching them at bad moments.

On November 30, 1994, Haber was out in an area near Fairbanks when he came upon a set of snares. Three wolves, still alive, were caught in traps, their twisted legs tangled in wire. Another was dead. Although he claims to care for the animals, Haber saw the scene as an opportunity. For months, since the snaring program had been in effect, Haber had followed Fish and Game pilots, tracking where they kept their snares and trying to get to the trapped wolves before the pilots landed. This time, "I beat them out of bed," he said.

When he reached the trapped wolves, he had two reporters with him, as well as his own video camera. About an hour later, Fish and Game showed up with a gun. The picture of three live, snared wolves was bad enough. But then Fish and Game agent Ed Crain put the wrong size bullets in his revolver. Crain shot one of the wolves in the forehead, but the animal was still alive. He shot the wolf again, on the side of the head, then in the shoulder. Only after he reloaded his gun with proper ammunition was he able to fire a deadly shot.

Those shots were, literally, heard around the world.  

The next night a very somber-looking Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw told millions of television viewers that they were about to see some very disturbing footage from Alaska. They warned the images might not be suitable for children.

The video showed a younger Bruce Bartley saying that he thought Gordon Haber's little show was a "cynical and hypocritical exploitation" of the situation. State Senator Ralph Seekins, R-Fairbanks, a staunch advocate of predator control, dismissed the footage, saying wolves in Alaska are nothing more than "the Jeffrey Dahmers" of the wild.

Governor Tony Knowles, only five days into his first term, said he was "disgusted." He quickly moved to cancel the program.

Gordon Haber accepted praise for being the man who saved the wolves. He vowed on camera that "wherever there's wolf control, I'll be there."

For nearly a decade, the use of traps and planes to limit the wolf population didn't reappear. Though, hunters have been allowed to legally snare and shoot about 1,300 wolves a year for sport throughout Alaska, just as they are allowed to hunt grizzly and black bears. Other "non-lethal" tactics to limit wolves have been employed, though the state says they have not worked well. So, last year the Board of Fish and Game opted to reengage in aerial wolf hunting.

Haber hasn't forgotten his promise. He's still around, still studying wolves, still toting his camera, hoping to score new footage. But it's harder to catch a photo of a wolf hunted from the air than one caught in a trap, and Haber is unsure he'll ever land the money shot. He'd like to convince state officials through facts, like those numbers that show moose are fairing well on their own and don't need protection. Then again, such arguments haven't done much to advance the cause. State officials have made up their mind, Haber believes, and nothing short of a huge national outcry will stop them.

For their part, those supporting the wolf hunt believe no amount of hard science will convince Haber and other activists that predator control is necessary. "We've compromised and compromised. They (the activists) don't play fair," said Mike Fleagal, chairman of the state Board of Fish and Game.  

It may be true that activists are uncompromising, using propaganda and skewing facts to their own gain, but the way it's been presented to the public, that shooting wolves is painful but necessary, is also untrue. Hunting wolves, especially from airplanes, is kind of fun if you're wired that way. Even Bruce Bartley, the Fish and Game flak, admits that.

It's a "thrill," akin to "catching a king salmon," he said.

The thrill involves chase and the possibility of failure. Activists worry that hunters are going to make mistakes, that wolves will get injured but not killed, left maimed or destined for a slow, agonizing death.

A film shot during the 1950s, called "This is My Alaska," charts a man named Leroy Shebal's hunting adventures, showing what an aerial wolf hunt can look like. It's what the activists fear is going on out there, what they'd like to document with cameras. It also embodies the state's fears, and perhaps the reason why reporters aren't allowed to tag along with the flying hunters.

In "This is My Alaska," Shebal, in his plane, chases a wolf. The animal struggles below in deep snow until it's exhausted. Shebal takes out his gun and fires a shot. He misses. He shoots again, this time hitting the wolf. The animal runs a bit more. Shebal fires again. The wolf is now running around in circles.

"Got him in the butt!" Shebal cries in the film.

The wolf slows down and lies in the snow. Shebal takes a final shot.

Flying near Glennallen, we weren't having much luck hunting the hunters. Then again, I wasn't helping much. I got sick half-way into the trip. I spent a long time with my head buried between my legs.

Matt Gallagher, the pilot, suggested that Scott Moran stage a photo.

"Maybe some ketchup?" Gallagher said. "We could always get some kids and some wolf costumes together, put them out in the snow" "

Moran tried to laugh but it didn't come out very well. We had been up for hours, and we hadn't seen so much as another plane in the sky. He drummed his fingers, took a few pictures of the stark landscape, some moose prints and trees, the glistening white mountains, the harsh Alaska landscape - the symbol of freedom for so many people, the source of so many of Alaska's jagged problems.

Moran suddenly sat up and pointed to a brown spot on a frozen lake. Gallagher made a wide circle in the sky, sending my stomach to my throat.

"There!" Moran said.

Gallagher took another sharp turn.

"Oh, those are just rocks."

Later, I learned from the state that on that same day, about a hundred miles away from where we were, a hunter shot two wolves. No doubt, it would not have made a pretty picture.

Contact Amanda Coyne at (907) 644-5407.

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