ANCHORAGE - The U.S. Department of the Interior has rejected a petition filed by a national wildlife group challenging a program in which Alaska hunters shoot wolves from airplanes.
Defenders of Wildlife said Thursday it received a letter from Interior Secretary Gale Norton's office that says the aerial wolf control program operating in the McGrath area is allowed under exceptions contained in the Airborne Hunting Act of 1971.
The wildlife group is considering further legal action.
"The Airborne Hunting Act doesn't let you mow down predators from the air just to radically reshape the entire wildlife profile of a whole area," said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of the 465,000-member group.
The federal law says that states cannot issue permits for airborne hunting for the purpose of sport hunting. But it says exceptions are allowed for the protection of "land, water, wildlife, livestock, domestic animals, human life or crops."
Defenders of Wildlife contends that the intent of Alaska's aerial wolf control program is not to protect wildlife but to boost game populations for hunters.
"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 Washington, D.C.-based group said in the petition filed in February.
The state has a different view. It contends that aerial wolf control is a predator control program designed to protect moose calves in the winter when they are most vulnerable to being eaten by bears and wolves.
The program is under way in two areas of Alaska where residents have long complained wolves and bears kill too many moose calves, leaving them with too few to hunt and eat. The game board wants 40 wolves removed from the area near the Interior Alaska town of McGrath and 140 wolves from the Nelchina basin near Glennallen in Southcentral Alaska.
As of Thursday, 20 wolves had been killed near McGrath and 120 near Glennallen. Department of Fish and Game officials said with the program ending April 30 it looked like neither one would reach its goal. Both programs are expected to start up again next winter.
When Defenders of Wildlife filed the petition, state Attorney General Gregg Renkes said the game board specifically designed the program to be a predator control program, not a hunting program.
Defenders of Wildlife lawyer Susan George said the group will consider going the next step and filing a lawsuit.
"We think the Department of the Interior has a responsibility to enforce the act," she said. "When you are talking about boosting game populations, that's not wildlife protection."