ANCHORAGE - A national wildlife group is asking Interior Secretary Gale Norton to turn her legal eye on Alaska's aerial wolf control program and find that it violates federal law.
Defenders of Wildlife submitted a 15-page petition Monday requesting that Norton find that the Airborne Hunting Act of 1971 does not allow the use of aircraft to kill wolves to boost game populations.
The Washington, D.C.-based group also is asking that Norton amend the federal law to say: "A state may not issue permits, or engage in any otherwise prohibited activity under the Airborne Hunting Act, for the purpose of manipulating any wildlife populations."
Alaska currently has a state-sponsored aerial wolf kill program under way in two areas of the state. The game board will consider expanding the program to other parts of the state at a meeting in several weeks.
"Because the programs are for the purpose of enhancing hunting and other recreational opportunities, unrelated to protecting wildlife, they violate the Airborne Hunting Act," the group said in its petition.
The group is turning to the federal government for relief after another animal rights group, Friends of Animals, failed in state court to put a stop to the program in the McGrath area in the Interior and around Glennallen in Southcentral.
"Our efforts to address this issue with Alaska's leaders have fallen on deaf ears, leaving us no choice but to turn to the federal government for help," Defenders of Wildlife spokesman Joel Bennett, a Juneau resident, said in a statement.
Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski remains supportive of the wolf control program, despite a national campaign from Friends of Animals, with about 200,000 members, to boycott Alaska's $2 billion-a-year tourism industry.
Alaska voters banned aircraft-assisted, land-and-shoot wolf hunting in ballot measures in 1996 and 2000. But the Alaska Legislature last year passed a law allowing private citizens to participate in state-sponsored predator control programs.
The program aims to kill 40 wolves near McGrath and about 140 in the Nelchina basin this winter to give young moose a better chance of surviving. In both areas, residents have long complained that bears and wolves eat too many moose, driving down the moose population and leaving too few to hunt for food.
Poor weather conditions have prevented any wolves so far from being killed around McGrath. As of Tuesday, 42 had been killed in the Nelchina basin area.
Defenders of Wildlife lawyer Susan George said Tuesday that the federal law lists some exceptions, but sport hunting and the enhancement of game populations is not among them.
"The citizens of Alaska clearly abhor this practice and the impact it has had on wolf populations. But despite that the citizens have been defeated by the Legislature and the game commission," George said.
State Attorney General Gregg Renkes said the game board, working with state wildlife officials, designed the program to be a predator control program, not a hunting program.
"We would be surprised if the federal government thought there was a problem," he said.
Murkowski spokesman John Manly said every member of the game board was well aware of the Airborne Hunting Act when it approved the aerial wolf control programs last year.
"What we are doing is not hunting. It is not sport hunting. It is predator/prey management," Manly said.
George said it could take weeks or just days to hear back from Norton, a former attorney general in Colorado. If Norton, sides with Defenders of Wildlife, George said the next step likely would be to have a citizens group step in and ask her or the courts to redress the violation.
"We certainly hope she would see the critical need for immediate action," George said.
According to its Web site, Defenders of Wildlife, which has a howling wolf on its logo, has championed the welfare of wolves and other predators since being founded in 1947. It has over 465,000 members and supporters.