ANCHORAGE - Gov. Frank Murkowski's reluctance to authorize aerial wolf control near McGrath has left some people feeling betrayed.
Last week, Murkowski said he would not allow state employees to shoot wolves from helicopters, instead leaving wolf control efforts to hunters and trappers on the ground around McGrath.
"It's 180 degrees from what he was saying during the campaign," said Chuck Gray, a longtime pilot and guide.
Gray said he and others fear Murkowski has caved in to political pressure or fears of a tourism boycott such as the one launched after Alaska's last wolf-kill program in the early 1990s.
"I think he's adopted a policy predicated on and subservient to threats from animal welfare and environmental interests," said Greg Roczicka, a former Board of Game member from Bethel.
Supporters of killing wolves to boost moose and caribou populations hoped for quick action this spring, taking advantage of snow cover to track the animals.
They say if nothing gets started now, it will be at least next winter before any wolf control can occur.
Murkowski denies his position on wolf control has changed. He still supports "active wildlife management," he said. But there are other methods of achieving the same ends short of using helicopters and state sharpshooters, he said.
"We've maintained predator control in other areas of Alaska without gunning 'em down by helicopter," he said. "I'm not convinced it can't be done with the involvement of local people."
Murkowski's decision undercuts an experiment designed to test the basic theory of predator control. The McGrath program calls for eliminating all the predators in a 520-square-mile area, including relocating brown and black bears during the spring and closing the hunting season. Biologists hope the combined effort will allow moose stocks to rebound.
Now the wolves are unlikely to be eliminated, game board member Ted Spraker told a legislative committee last week. "If you miss half the predators and do half the job, you can't expect more than half the results."
Murkowski has said lethal wolf control "has a volatility that goes nationwide."
Some see that as an acknowledgment that state involvement in wolf killing would be controversial.
"The fact is, there are consequences," said Joel Bennett, a former game board member and Juneau representative of the national group Defenders of Wildlife. "People get upset, and there's a cost to pay for taking airplanes out and shooting an animal that's arguably a symbol of Alaska wilderness."
During his campaign for governor, Murkowski charged the Knowles administration with dragging its feet on wolf control programs approved by the Board of Game.
Knowles stopped all lethal wolf control efforts shortly after taking office in 1994. During the Hickel administration, a nationwide tourism boycott prompted then-Fish and Game commissioner Carl Rosier to halt proposed aerial wolf control.
A ground-based wolf-reduction program in the Interior ended when traps and snares failed to kill the animals quickly. Photographs of snared moose and wolves with chewed-off paws caused Rosier to shelve that program too.
Voters also weighed in on the issue of wolf control in 1996 when they banned private citizens from a practice known as land-and-shoot hunting. Hunters were supposed to track wolves from the air, land nearby and shoot them. But critics claimed they were abusing the law by either chasing the wolves to exhaustion before landing or shooting them from the air.
The Alaska Legislature overrode that action in 1999 by passing a law legalizing land-and-shoot hunting. That spurred yet another ballot measure in 2000 that reiterated voters' opposition.