Copters, State Nixed for Wolf Control

Tom Moran / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / Juneau Bureau / April 3, 2003


JUNEAU--Gov. Frank Murkowski unveiled his plan for wolf control in the McGrath area Wednesday, taking a different path than the one urged by the state Board of Game.

Murkowski stated Wednesday morning that he has nixed any killing of wolves from helicopters or by Alaska Department of Fish and Game personnel, saying he would prefer predator control programs to be carried out by local hunters and trappers.

Murkowski's proposal has met with mixed reactions from the Board of Game and disapproval from the Alaska Outdoor Council and others.

"I don't see the necessity of utilizing helicopters to basically run the wolves down, and as a consequence I'm not approving that concept," Murkowski said in a Wednesday press conference. "I support the local people ... reducing the predators themselves through their traditional methods of trapping, and obviously making a recovery for the value of the pelts and so forth."

Murkowski said he may support using fixed-wing airplanes for wolf control under "emergency" conditions, but not using state aircraft. And he indicated that he felt fair-chase concerns need to be considered in implementing predator control.

"I think without exception I support the fair chase concept," he said. "On the other hand, there has to be a recognition that you're also trying to balance a game herd here."

Murkowski's directives mark a significant departure from the stance of the state Board of Game, which has recommended a program to kill wolves and relocate bears from a 520 square-mile area near McGrath in order to bolster the region's moose population. The board recommended wolves be either shot or darted from helicopters by Fish and Game staff--and the board also stated that fair chase issues should not be an issue in predator control.

"We have a problem with predation," noted board member Pete Buist of Fairbanks. "What fair chase has to do with it, I have no idea."

Buist and fellow board member Mike Fleagle of McGrath both said they believe helicopter hunting to be the most effective method of predator control.

"In terms of efficiency and fairness, helicopters are the way to go," Buist said.

That opinion is also shared by two people with widely divergent views of wolf control--former Fish and Game Commissioner Carl Rosier, a representative of the pro-predator control Alaska Outdoor Council, and former Game Board member Joel Bennett, who helped craft a ballot initiative limiting predator control to Fish and Game employees.

"You want to do it as cleanly and humanely as possible on this," said Rosier. "If you can't meet those kind of standards here on this thing, then why have a program?"

Bennett opposes wolf control in McGrath under present conditions, but agreed that helicopters are the most humane method and said the Alaska public is much more amenable to Fish and Game personnel doing the work.

"Because of the past history of using the public in their own planes and because of the inability of the department to completely control the public when they do that, that's why the public is skeptical," he said.

Given the governor's helicopter prohibition, Fleagle and Buist said the next-best option would be land-and-shoot hunting by members of the public using fixed-wing aircraft. Rosier said the AOC supports that as well if helicopters are off the table.

But there's an open question of whether state statute allows land-and-shoot predator control by civilians. The administration contends that it does, but also supports a pair of bills currently in the House and Senate that would change language to conclusively show the method is legal.

"The state believes that involvement of the public can be authorized," said Matt Robus of the Department of Fish and Game in a Wednesday hearing on the House version of the bill.

But Bennett and others argued at the same hearing that a pair of citizens' ballot initiatives in 1996 and 2000 prohibited any predator control expect by Fish and Game employees.

"The language the public voted on couldn't be clearer," said Karen Deatherage of Friends of Animals.

Both versions of the bill remain in committee.

The goings-on in Juneau have left the Game Board weighing its options. Buist and Fleagle both said they believe that, with helicopters not available, land-and-shoot hunting would be a necessary part of a McGrath wolf control program.

"If we can structure the program to where private citizens can do it with aircraft, it'll be successful," Fleagle said.

Fleagle said he thinks the ban on helicopters combined with present snow conditions that make land-and-shoot hunting difficult could slow the wolf control portion of the McGrath program, meaning the wolves would be taken next winter instead of this spring.

Buist, on the other hand, noted the politics involved in wolf control and said he never expected the plan to unfold so quickly in the first place.

"It's probably not reasonable to think anything will happen this spring," he said.

Fleagle said at this point he just wants to get some sort of program moving.

"We don't really care how the predators get reduced, we just want to see it happen," he said.

Reporter Tom Moran can be reached at or (907) 463-489

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