Murkowski Wants Locals to Kill Wolves
McGrath: Policy change puzzles supporters, doesn't pacify opponents
Wolves: Airborne hunt called more efficient

Mike Chambers / The Associated Press / Anchorage Daily News / April 3, 2003


JUNEAU -- Gov. Frank Murkowski won't allow the use of helicopters or state employees to kill wolves as part of a predator control program around McGrath.

Putting Department of Fish and Game employees in helicopters to shoot wolves was at the top of a list of options recommended by the state Board of Game, which is asking the state to kill wolves and relocate bears around McGrath to improve moose numbers there.

The state instead will encourage local residents to cull the number of wolves in a 520 square-mile area near the village in western Interior Alaska and may turn to private aircraft in the future, Murkowski said.

"The people out there that depend on the game I think have an interest, a motivation, a capability, and that's where I think the responsibility rests," Murkowski said.

His decision puts some distance between the state and the controversial practice of killing wolves to improve hunting success. But it won't avert a fight with an animal rights group threatening a tourism boycott and lawsuit if state-sanctioned wolf kills are resumed after being stopped for nearly a decade.

"Whether it is aircraft or helicopters or unlimited snowmachine hunting, if it's done to accomplish predator control to make moose hunting more convenient, it's all the same to us," said Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals in Connecticut.

Her group will file a lawsuit if the state moves forward with any predator-control program that kills wolves, Feral said.

State-sanctioned wolf killing has always been contentious and has attracted lawsuits and negative publicity across the country.

Former Gov. Wally Hickel imposed a moratorium on wolf control after a tourism boycott and strong national opposition to his wolf control policies in 1992. Former Gov. Tony Knowles suspended state-sanctioned wolf kills shortly after taking office in 1994 and approved only nonlethal predator control.

During his campaign for office, Murkowski won support from hunting groups and some in Bush Alaska by taking a tough stance in favor of wolf control. Since taking office in December, Murkowski has appointed six members to the state Board of Game who have supported wolf kill programs.

In March, the board asked the Fish and Game commissioner to authorize killing wolves and relocating bears around McGrath in an experimental attempt to increase the moose population available to hunters. The board asked the commissioner to use helicopter hunting and same-day airborne hunting to kill wolves.

The state plans to begin moving bears in May and is awaiting the Legislature's OK on wolf control, Commissioner Kevin Duffy told the board in a letter.

Residents in and around McGrath who hunt moose for food have been asking for years for the state to cut predator numbers. McGrath has been on the front lines of the battle over wolf control in Alaska in recent years and seems poised to become the first site for state-sanctioned wolf kills.

Murkowski's decision to forbid helicopters or using state employees surprises wolf-control supporters, including Game Board chairman Mike Fleagle, who lives in McGrath.

Fleagle said the decision "kind of puts us in a Catch-22," since time is running out this year to wage an effective wolf-killing program.

"I'm not faulting him. I'm just saying because of that and the way the statutes read, it looks like (there may be) no wolf reduction this spring in McGrath," Fleagle said.

Murkowski's decision to rely on local hunters has attracted criticism even from statewide groups that support wolf control.

Carl Rosier of the Alaska Outdoor Council said a professional helicopter hunt would be the quickest and most humane way to reduce wolf numbers in specific areas of the state.

"Obviously a helicopter is a lot more efficient to get the job done," said Rosier, who was Department of Fish and Game commissioner under Hickel.

The decision raises the possibility that private hunters will take to the air to kill wolves, said Joel Bennett with Defenders of Wildlife. And that would fly in the face of a 1996 statewide initiative and a 2000 referendum outlawing land-and-shoot wolf hunting, he said.

"He's just sort of picking a fight with the public again, that's what he's doing," Bennett said. "It's just going to mean more publicity for Alaska."

Bennett said his group is not opposed to a state-run predator control program but does not believe it is warranted in McGrath. He said two bills before the Legislature would allow Murkowski to use public land-and-shoot methods for wolf control.

Supporters of House Bill 208 and Senate Bill 155 disagree, and Murkowski said on Wednesday that the state currently has the authority to contract with private parties to undertake airborne wolf-control measures.

But Bennett accused lawmakers of downplaying the importance of the bills and said they would roll back the referendum.

"I think they are just playing a shell game with wording here, trying to build a case that this legislation doesn't do anything," Bennett said.

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