ANCHORAGE - Gov. Frank Murkowski signed a bill Wednesday that could let private hunters shoot wolves from airplanes.
Senate Bill 155 allows private citizens to participate in aerial and so-called land-and-shoot hunting in approved state predator-control programs. It also makes it easier for the Alaska Board of Game to implement such efforts.
Murkowski earlier had objected out of concerns the bill cuts the administration out of predator control decisions. But he changed his mind.
The state Department of Fish and Game can block private hunters from receiving the federal permit needed for aerial hunting.
"The Department of Fish and Game will continue to have significant involvement in the predator management process," Murkowski said in a prepared statement. "However, the bill provides a useful tool to the Board of Game in using predator control to achieve abundant and healthy game populations in Alaska."
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Ralph Seekins, a Fairbanks Republican, also loosened restrictions under which the Game Board can call for predator control.
Existing law says the board must determine prey population - moose or caribou - has fallen below previously established minimum levels before enacting a predator control program. Under the new law, the board could act regardless of the prey population.
The Game Board last March listed aerial hunting as its top choice for eliminating about 40 wolves in a predator-control program near McGrath.
The board wanted state Department of Fish and Game employees to shoot them from helicopters, but Murkowski wouldn't allow it, saying he wanted McGrath residents to take care of the problem.
Seekins' bill may satisfy both Murkowski's desire to leave wolf control to private citizens and hunters' desire to shoot from the air.
Aerial wolf hunts could be used soon, but sparingly, said Matt Robus, Fish and Game's director of wildlife conservation. Robus said the department is interested in aerial wolf hunting near McGrath, where the state has been capturing and removing bears in a predator control experiment this summer.
But in other areas of the state, predator control may not be effective for technological, biological or social reasons, Robus said.
Opponents of aerial wolf control say the Game Board and department will be wise to use the new predator control authority carefully.
"The state has to analyze the impact of one program on other programs, what the national outcry is going be, how much (department) personnel time is needed for response. It's not a low-impact program," said Joel Bennett of Juneau, a former Game Board member who now represents Defenders of Wildlife.
The last time the Legislature eased restrictions in the state's land-and-shoot laws, voters overturned the action through a ballot referendum. Bennett said opponents of the new law "haven't decided what to do yet."