Helicopter gunners part of wolf control plan

Game Board wants more cost-effective culling methods

Posted: Sunday, March 11, 2007

ANCHORAGE - The state's game board wants to bring in helicopter gunners to kill more wolves in a culling program that board members said is severely behind schedule.

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Costly fuel and uncooperative weather have grounded many volunteer pilots and gunners in the state's aerial wolf control program. As a result, only 38 wolves have been killed so far this winter, said Matt Robus, wildlife conservation director.

State biologists wanted at least 382 wolves killed during the winter when snow makes it easier to track the animals.

Fish and Game officials have met with Gov. Sarah Palin's staff to discuss getting the governor's approval to use state biologists and state helicopters to do the shooting.

Helicopter gunners would be more efficient for shooting wolves because they can hover just 20 feet from wolves, board members said.

That's opposed to the current practice of trying to hit animals from small planes moving at speeds of 70 mph.

Palin found out about the proposal on Thursday and hasn't had much time to consider the question, spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said.

"She's aware it's a viable option but she hasn't made up her mind," Leighow said.

The last administration drew the line at allowing helicopters because it was too politically volatile, said Cliff Judkins, Game Board chairman.

John Toppenberg, head of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, said he wouldn't support the program if helicopters were used. The state has never proven there's a biological emergency necessitating protection of moose, he said.

He agreed, however, that using helicopters is more humane because gunners in planes shred packs, leaving remnant animals that struggle to survive.

"It's more organized, more targeted, and the surgical precision of the kill would be far more effective," he said.

The aerial wolf killing program operates mostly in south-central Alaska and the Interior. It's designed to increase the number of moose by eliminating hundreds of wolves.

About 550 wolves have been killed since the program began four years ago. There are 7,000 to 11,000 wolves in Alaska, the state estimates.

Robus said that too many wolves can reduce moose numbers and set the animals up for a crash if there's a bad snow year that makes feeding and fleeing predators difficult.

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