Animal-rights issue is not keeping tourists away

140 wolves have died in program that ends April 30, resumes next winter

Posted: Sunday, April 18, 2004

ANCHORAGE - Facing a new Alaska program to hunt wolves from airplanes, the animal-rights group Friends of Animals is trying to revive its successful pressure tactic of a decade ago and persuade vacationers to boycott the state this summer. But tourism officials say this time the plea seems to be falling mostly on deaf ears.

"It seems for once Outsiders don't care how we do it in Alaska," said Eric Downey, vice president of marketing for Denali Lodges.

While tourism officials with the state's largest trade groups say they've received hundreds of e-mails and letters from people who say they're canceling plans for Alaska vacations, they say there is little evidence of the protest in summer bookings.

The boycott has had no effect on his mid-size company, Downey said. Denali Lodges expects more than 10,000 visitors this summer at its lodge inside Denali National Park and Preserve and cabins just outside the boundary.

"We have not had one cancellation or call of concern or complaint," he said.

The Darien, Conn.-based Friends of Animals called for the boycott in December to protest Alaska's aerial wolf control program. Under the program, 180 wolves were to be killed this winter in two areas where residents complain wolves and bears are eating too many moose, leaving them with too few for food.

About 140 wolves have been killed under the program that ends April 30. The program will resume next winter.

Wolves in Alaska are not a threatened or endangered species. Population estimates range from 8,000 to 11,000. About 1,500 wolves are killed in Alaska every year, mostly by trappers.

Alaska resumed aerial wolf hunts last year after a decade-long ban. Gov. Frank Murkowski has said he will not bend to the threatened boycott because the state has an obligation to manage its resources to benefit Alaskans. Murkowski did not respond to repeated requests for additional comment.

The 950-member Alaska Travel Industry Association in the past several months has received about 100 phone calls and 200 e-mails, mostly from individuals saying they won't be visiting Alaska, said spokesman Mark Morones. But he said it's unknown how many of those people actually canceled reservations.

Last year, Alaska had 1.3 million summer visitors, with more than half arriving by cruise ship. The North West CruiseShip Association expects even more cruise ship visitors this summer, with the first ship arriving in Ketchikan on May 4.

Smaller adventure-travel companies do see some impact, though their reports are mixed.

Anne Gore, executive director of the 275-member Alaska Wilderness Recreation and Tourism Association, said her group receives two or three strongly worded e-mails or calls a day from travelers saying they're boycotting Alaska.

The association of small and mid-size businesses responds with a letter that says AWRTA and the people of Alaska "share your concern for the wolves. ... Unfortunately, our state leaders have ignored our wishes and gone ahead with their personal agenda."

It asks that visitors consider showing support for the wolves and Alaska's wild places by patronizing AWRTA businesses.

During the 1993 tourism boycott, "the only companies negatively affected ... were the small to mid-size businesses represented by AWRTA. For some of the smaller, family-owned companies, the financial losses resulting from the boycott were devastating, nearly putting them out of business," the letter says.

John French, general manager of Alaska Discovery, a small adventure travel company in Juneau, said bookings for March were perhaps the worst the company has seen in its 33 years. There also were a lot of cancellations, he said.

While nobody said they were canceling because of the wolves, French suspects that could be the case. Alaska Discovery clients tend to be educated and well-read on conservation issues, he said, and it's likely some of them heard about the wolf control program and decided to skip Alaska this summer.

"The only people this seems to be affecting are little companies like ours that support conservation," he said. "It is so frustrating to have an imperial decree ... and kick sand in the face of small, conservation-minded adventure travel companies."

Cherie and Kenneth Mason were prepared to spend several thousand dollars on a two-week cruise to Southeast Alaska this summer. The retired couple from Sunset, Maine, also wanted to buy Eskimo art to add to their collection. But after hearing that wolves were being shot, the Masons told Lindblad Expeditions in New York to refund their deposit.

"Wolves are magnificent animals and they are really at the mercy of politics in Alaska, depending on who is governor and who is on the Board of Game," said Cherie Mason. "We will just stay home and hope we can go next year if things change."

But Gerry Sanger said his Sound Eco Adventures in Whittier has been untouched by the boycott. He has more than 40 bookings this summer from clients wanting to take whale-watching cruises and glacier hikes, and sea kayakers and deer hunters needing transportation to remote destinations.

"My impression is it hasn't made a ripple," Sanger said of the boycott. "My business is up 20 percent over last year."



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