FAIRBANKS - The state has started shooting wolves from helicopters in Alaska's eastern interior hoping to turn around an unsuccessful aerial predator control program there.
The project has raised concerns among officials at nearby Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, where predator control is prohibited.
Department of Fish and Game workers shot and killed about 30 wolves from a helicopter Saturday in the Fortymile area east of Tok. The focus area is the Fortymile Caribou Herd's calving grounds adjacent to the national preserve.
Fish and Game spokeswoman Cathie Harms said the goal is to kill another 70 wolves before breakup. That number doesn't count wolves killed by permitted private pilot-gunner teams in fixed-wing aircraft or wolves taken by trappers and hunters.
The total goal for the area is 200 wolves, which would leave about 100 wolves. The state estimates between 290 and 328 wolves live in the region.
Preserve superintendent Greg Dudgeon said the National Park Service was notified only on Thursday about the weekend shooting.
"Our great concern is a good many of those wolves have home ranges that are centered in the preserve," he said.
The wolves have been studied by biologists for almost two decades and the park service has a mandate to maintain healthy wolf populations for hunting, trapping and viewing, he said.
The park service asked for a no-kill buffer zone around the preserve. Dudgeon said the state refused on the grounds that the Fortymile Caribou Herd's calving grounds rim the preserve boundary.
Dudgeon also asked that fewer than 80 percent of the wolves be killed.
He also requested that the state review the park service's wolf population estimates, which are lower than the state's. The state refused, saying its population estimate is based on state surveys as recent as last fall.
Dudgeon said the state agreed not to shoot wolves in three packs and to shoot no more than four wolves in two other packs.
Using helicopters to shoot wolves is a "desperate" action by the department "to fix a failed program," said Wade Willis, an Alaska representative for Defenders of Wildlife.
"They've got five years of predator control that's completely failed and now they say we have to get more radical," Willis said. "Then they go after the very wolves that the National Park Service is studying to establish the predator-prey relationship."
The killings mark the second time in the past year that the state has used helicopters as part of its much-criticized aerial wolf control program.
The program has been a point of national controversy since it was initiated five years ago in five areas of the state and gained more attention as a result of Gov. Sarah Palin's rise to national fame as the Republican vice-presidential candidate last year.
More than 800 wolves have been killed as part of the program.
Assistant Fish and Game Commissioner Corey Rossi said the governor is committed to managing the state's wildlife resources for food and subsistence uses "to preserve our way of life."
Poor weather conditions and a lack of snow over the past three years prevented pilot-gunner teams from killing enough wolves to bolster caribou and moose populations in the area, according to regional supervisor David James with the Department of Fish and Game.
Private pilot-gunner teams haven't been able to make a dent in the wolf population, Harms said.
"It's a very large area and it's become apparent it's going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to reach those numbers with just permittees," she said. "Helicopters are much more efficient."