Murkowski takes helicopters out of mix in McGrath

Posted: Thursday, April 03, 2003

Gov. Frank Murkowski won't allow state employees in helicopters to kill wolves as part of a predator control program around McGrath.

Putting Department of Fish and Game employees in the air to shoot wolves was at the top of a list of options recommended by the state Board of Game, which wants the state to kill wolves and relocate bears around McGrath to improve the number of moose there.

The state instead will encourage local residents to cull the number of wolves in a 520-square mile area near the western Interior Alaska community, and may turn to private aircraft in the future, Murkowski said.

"The people out there that depend on the game I think have an interest, a motivation, a capability and that's where I think the responsibility rests," Murkowski said.

His decision puts some distance between the state and the controversial practice of killing wolves to improve moose-hunting success. But it won't avert a fight with an animal-rights group threatening a tourism boycott and lawsuit if state-sanctioned wolf kills are resumed.

"Whether it is aircraft or helicopters or unlimited snowmachine hunting, if it's done to accomplish predator control to make moose hunting more convenient, it's all the same to us," said Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals in Connecticut.

She said her group will file a lawsuit if the state moves forward with any predator-control program that kills wolves.

Earlier state-sanctioned wolf killing attracted lawsuits and negative publicity across the country.

Former Gov. Walter J. Hickel imposed a moratorium on wolf control after a tourism boycott and strong national opposition to his wolf-control policies in 1992. Former Gov. Tony Knowles suspended state-sanctioned wolf kills shortly after taking office in 1994 and approved only non-lethal predator control.

During his campaign for office, Murkowski won support from hunting groups and some in Bush Alaska by taking a tough stance in favor of wolf control and promising to remove politics from the equation. Since taking office in December, Murkowski has appointed six members to the state Board of Game who have supported wolf-kill programs.

In March, the board asked the commissioner of the Department of Fish and Game to approve a plan to kill wolves and relocate bears in the area around McGrath to boost the moose population.

The board also asked the commissioner to use helicopter hunting and same-day airborne hunting as two means of reducing predators in that area.

The state plans to begin relocating bears in May, and is awaiting legislative action to allow a wolf-control program to move forward, Commissioner Kevin Duffy told the board in a letter.

Murkowski's decision to forbid helicopters or using state employees surprised wolf-control supporters, including game board Chairman Mike Fleagle, who lives in McGrath.

Fleagle said the decision "kind of puts us in a Catch-22," since time is running out this year to wage an effective wolf-killing program.

"... (T)he way the statutes read, it looks like (there may be) no wolf reduction this spring in McGrath," Fleagle said.

Carl Rosier of the Alaska Outdoor Council, Fish and Game commissioner under Hickel, said a professional helicopter hunt would be the quickest and most humane way to reduce wolf numbers.

The decision raises the possibility that private hunters will take to the air to kill wolves, said Joel Bennett with Defenders of Wildlife, which opposes Murkowski's plan. That would fly in the face of a 1996 statewide initiative and a 2000 referendum outlawing land-and-shoot wolf hunting, said Bennett, a former Game Board member from Juneau.

"He's just sort of picking a fight with the public again, that's what he's doing," said Bennett. "It's just going to mean more publicity for Alaska."

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