Feds threaten legal action over predator control

Posted: Tuesday, May 25, 2010

ANCHORAGE - A federal agency threatened Monday to take legal action if Alaska moves ahead with plans to kill wolves inside a national wildlife refuge.

In a letter Monday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cautioned the Alaska Department of Fish and Game about proceeding with plans to kill wolves on refuge land on Unimak Island without a special use permit issued by the federal government.

Doing so would be "considered as a trespass on the refuge" and be immediately referred to the U.S. attorney, according to a Fish and Wildlife Service news release paraphrasing the letter.

The letter was in response to one that state wildlife officials sent last week to Rowan Gould, the Fish and Wildlife Service's acting director.

In that letter, Corey Rossi, director of Fish and Game's Division of Wildlife Conservation, said, "Immediate action is required to protect the herd, specifically this year's calves.

"Waiting to take action places this year's calves in too great a jeopardy," wrote Rossi, a strong proponent of aerial predator control where wolves and bears are killed to boost moose and caribou numbers.

The federal agency is required by law to follow a certain process - a process the state is well aware of but apparently doesn't want to wait for, said Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Bruce Woods.

"We definitely are saying that any significant action conducted on a wildlife refuge in Alaska requires a special use permit by the service," he said.

Fish and Game officials declined Monday to answer questions or provide additional comment.

Fish and Game announced last week that beginning about June 1, it will shoot some wolves on Unimak to protect caribou calving grounds under its aerial predator control program in place in a half-dozen or more locations around Alaska.

The department plans on using two biologists and four pilots to kill wolves over a span of three weeks on Unimak, which is part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

It would be the first time in recent history that aerial predator control was used inside a national refuge in Alaska.

Caribou are an important subsistence food for people living on the island, but their numbers have been declining. In 2002, there were more than 1,200 caribou. Last year, fewer than 300 were counted. The state has an unofficial estimate of up to 30 wolves.

In its letter, the Fish and Wildlife Service said it recognizes the urgency of the situation but is required to follow federal laws when initiating new management programs on its refuge lands.

It also points out that the federal agency has been working with the state to better understand the biological factors in the herd's decline since concerns were raised in December. To that end, it has issued permits to allow additional radio collaring and biological sampling of wolves and caribou, the letter says.

Woods said the agency is using the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, to guide the process, which could take three to six months to complete.

The federal agency hopes the jurisdictional issue can be resolved without going to court. If it can't, maybe the court could resolve it "once and for all," Woods said.

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