State faces backlash for killing pups

Critics say state biologists broke law, ethics when they killed 14 baby wolves

Posted: Monday, August 11, 2008

Critics say state Department of Fish and Game biologists set themselves up to break a law against killing wolf pups by going out at the wrong time of year. State biologists say they knew what would happen in June and were prepared to shoot pups if necessary.

"The biggest cost of all is the ethical cost," said Gordon Haber, a wolf biologist in Denali National Park. "They've done something that offends society."

The outcry is also over the law.

A section of state code titled "Control of predation by wolves" states, "'Denning,' the killing of wolf young in the den, is prohibited."

State biologists in early June shot 14 wolf pups, without initially telling the Board of Game or the public.

The board had authorized the biologists in March to kill wolves if necessary on the southern Alaska Peninsula. They shot 14 wolves from a helicopter. Once on the ground, they discovered the pups left orphaned by the helicopter shooting and shot them instead of leaving them to die slowly.

State biologists say the southern Alaska Peninsula caribou herd is in trouble, citing calf survival of less than 1 percent the last few years. That is why they went to the Board of Game asking to shoot wolves.

They did not mention pups to the Board of Game before the shooting, and did not publicly disclose that they'd killed pups afterward.

The press release from Fish and Game said, "Wolves from three packs were shot from a helicopter by Alaska Department of Fish and Game staff."

The pup shootings came to light after Gordon Haber, a wolf biologist who lives in Denali, questioned one of the biologists about whether lactating females had been shot, and whether there were pups.

"These guys knew how controversial and inflammatory that would be, and that's why they never said anything about it," Haber said.

Haber is a vocal opponent of the wolf control program. He says the caribou herd's decline is normal in historical context and that data does not support that wolves are to blame.

Wildlife division director Doug Larsen said the Board of Game order that allows "all wolves" to be taken from a specific area includes pups.

He said biologists were prepared beforehand to kill pups.

"We knew going in, as most everyone knows, springtime is a time when you're going to have reproduction. The Board of Game recognized that," Larsen said.

Anchorage board member Bob Bell supports the wolf control program but now wishes the biologists had brought up pups in the discussion, he said.

"We're having enough trouble with this predator control thing in terms of P.R.," he said. "Certainly if we had anticipated they would have had a denning situation, we would have wanted to know that."

Bell said it would be tough to choose between a baby caribou or the baby wolf. Yet on balance, he said he probably wouldn't approve denning, even as a last resort.

"In my heart of hearts, I don't think they anticipated this situation coming up," Bell said.

Juneau attorney Joe Geldhof filed a request for client Joel Bennett last month for all state records relating to the June wolf shootings.

Larsen said that he didn't yet know how much material the response would provide, but that some records were at remote offices. He said pulling it together would take until Aug. 19.

The response will come a week before Alaska voters decide whether to change the state's predator control program so that only Fish and Game biologists would be able to shoot wolves, and only in the event of a biological emergency.

Nick Jans, who with Bennett wrote the ballot initiative, sharply criticized the state for the timing, the denning and the state's failure to tell the public, which he called a "cover-up."

"They broke a state regulation, and they set themselves up to do it," he said.

Their organization, Alaskans for Wildlife, did not oppose this year's wolf control, he said. State biologists were doing the killing, and that was what the organization wanted.

Bennett and Jans say the incident emphasizes the importance of passing the initiative to limit wolf control to state employees, even though they're the ones who killed the pups.

"If this is predator control practiced at its best, what do you think is going on with the private guys?" Jans said.

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or e-mail kate.golden@juneauempire.com.



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