ANCHORAGE - Alaska's offer of $150 for each wolf killed under its predator control program is nothing more than an illegal bounty and should be stopped immediately, conservation groups said Tuesday in court filings.
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The groups, including Defenders of Wildlife, the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, the Alaska Chapter of the Sierra Club and Friends of Animals, are asking a state Superior Court to stop the state from offering the cash payments in what Defenders described as a "poorly disguised bounty program."
"Such a program is clearly illegal," the court document says. "Over two decades ago, the Legislature revoked any authority the defendants had to pay bounties to hunters."
Sharon Leighow, spokeswoman for Gov. Sarah Palin, said that the state as of late Tuesday had not been served with a restraining order and planned to continue the program, in which wolves are shot by hunters from airplanes.
"The Department of Fish and Game is offering cash incentives for biological specimens, not bounties. The whole point is to manage for abundance and the purpose of the program is to ensure local hunters and families have enough food on their tables," she said.
Friends of Animals maintains that Alaska's wolf kill program, under which more than 660 wolves have been killed in four years, is a bounty hunt and should be stopped immediately.
"Through this filing we intend to halt these abominable practices," said Priscilla Feral, president of the Darien, Conn.-based group.
The state announced the State Incentive Program earlier this month. Under the program, hunter and pilot teams can get $150 for each wolf killed if the left front leg is turned in. The legs can help biologists determine wolf age and will assist the program in the future, the department has said.
The lawsuit contends the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's "suddenly-invented, scientific motivation to see the left foreleg of each dead wolf" is an attempt to circumvent the prohibition on bounties, the document says.
The $150 payment is characterized by the state as an incentive to help pilots pay for gas and bring income into households participating in the wolf-kill program.
Previously, the only compensation for 180 pilot and gunner teams permitted under the program was the open market price for the wolf pelt, anywhere from $200 to $300.
"They would like to call it an incentive but ... it qualifies as a bounty by the common meaning of the word," said Tom Banks, an Alaska associate for Defenders of Wildlife.
Matt Robus, director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation for the Department of Fish and Game, said bounties were paid in the past to just about anybody who could offer proof of a kill. But he called the new incentive program a very controlled effort in five specific areas to reach the state's management objectives and boost moose and caribou numbers.
Robus said the reason the program has lagged in some areas is not one of money but of too little fresh snow this winter to track wolves in much of Alaska.
"The problem is you can't take wolves from the air when you don't have good snow conditions," he said.
Banks said the reason the program is not meeting its numbers is because the state is overestimating the number of wolves in Alaska and not taking into consideration just how many have been killed.
The state estimates the number of wolves at between about 7,000 and 11,000 animals. But Banks said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service puts the number at between 6,000 and 7,000 animals.
"I think the numbers have been knocked down pretty far," Banks said. "Now they are really scraping the bottom of the barrel to find more wolves where they are becoming so scarce."
Defenders says even if bounties were allowed, the state would first have to come up with regulations allowing for payments and the Legislature would have to appropriate the money.