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
Story / Amanda Coyne / Anchorage Press / April 16,
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."
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
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
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
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.
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
"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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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