Lawmakers take up predator control bill

Posted: Thursday, January 31, 2008

Hearings on Gov. Sarah Palin's proposal to streamline the state's predator control laws opened Wednesday with a barrage of opposition.

The bill had its first hearing in the House Resources Committee.

Officials with the state Department of Fish and Game called the bill a housekeeping measure that would mesh and simplify two confusing, often conflicting, laws aimed at boosting moose and caribou populations.

Kevin Saxby, an assistant attorney general working with the Alaska Board of Game, said the bill would allow the board to respond quickly to declines in prey populations while continuing to base its decisions on the department's research and advise.

"The procedure is subject to almost constant challenge because it is such a complex law that there is a great deal of confusion with the public and special interest groups over what the Legislature intended. So we are proposing to reduce it to its bare essentials," said Saxby.

Defenders of Wildlife, which is suing the state over its aerial wolf shooting program, said the bill would strip the program of scientific standards and limit public participation, leaving predator control decisions in the hands of an ideologically driven game board.

"This legislation positions the Board of Game to accelerate a program for political reasons but without attention to whether such a program is fiscally prudent or biologically sound," said Tom Banks, the group's Alaska representative.

Some hunting groups also had reservations over the bill.

Mark Richards, co-chairman of the Alaska Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said his group supports the administration's attempts to make predator management decisions legally defensible. But he said the changes would have the opposite effect by giving the Board of Game sole authority on future predator management decisions.

"We need to stop frivolous lawsuits that cost the state so much time and money, but this bill introduces too many potential downsides with its solution," Richards said in written testimony.

Still others said the Legislature should wait until voters can weigh in this fall on a ballot initiative that would limit the state's aerial wolf kill program to hunts done by state biologists in emergency situations.

The state currently allows private pilots to do the hunting if they are part of a state-sponsored program.

Alaskans have twice passed similar initiatives in recent years, which were later overturned by the Legislature.

The state's program, which has been the target of lawsuits since it began in 2003, is intended to boost moose and caribou numbers where residents have complained that predators are killing too many, leaving them too few to hunt for food.

Banks said rural subsistence-dependent people are often portrayed as the chief beneficiaries of the predator control programs. However, statistics show two-thirds to three-quarters of moose and caribou hunted in Alaska are harvested by urban and out-of-state hunters, he said.

Under the program, now in its fifth year, 700 wolves have been killed. The goal is to reduce wolf populations in each of the specified areas by as much as 80 percent annually.

The committee will continue to take public testimony on the governor's bill at its meeting next Monday.

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