A Superior Court judge has upheld a Tok jury's decision to award damages to a trapper who claimed biologist Gordon Haber broke state law by freeing an injured wolf he trapped in 1997.
Judge Richard Savell ruled the Tok jury did not err in its 2000 decision that awarded Eugene Johnson damages, but that the jury exceeded the amount it could award.
The jury awarded almost $190,000 - nearly $40,000 from Haber and $150,000 from Friends of Animals of Darien, Conn., which funded Haber's work. The jury concluded Haber was an employee of the animal protection organization, a conclusion Haber disputed, saying he was an independent wildlife biologist.
Judge Savell said the Tok District Court did not have jurisdiction to award that much money.
Counting attorney fees and interest, Savell's decision will cost Friends of Animals about $100,000, said Zane Wilson, the attorney representing Johnson's claim. Johnson died in June and the money will be awarded to his estate, Wilson said.
"It was rather tragic that Eugene did not live past this litigation," he said. "Certainly Eugene felt that he had done the right thing and he felt really proud that he had done something about this situation."
Wilson said Savell's ruling also holds Haber individually liable for about $79,000 in damages, but due to the ruling he must choose between taking that amount or the higher figure Friends of Animals was ordered to pay.
Johnson, an Alaska Native who lived a subsistence lifestyle, filed a lawsuit in March 1998, a year after Haber released a 2-year-old black wolf caught in one of Johnson's traps near the Yukon-Charley National Preserve. Haber contended the Alaska Department of Fish and Game commissioner had given him permission to release the wolf, and that the wolf was captured illegally.
"My basic position hasn't changed from day one: I released an illegally caught wolf," he told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
Haber contended Johnson's snaring site was littered with at least four dead caribou caught in snares. If wildlife troopers had prosecuted Johnson, he said in 2000, then the trapper would not have been able to file a civil suit.
Haber's actions came under scrutiny after he distributed a videotape showing the wolf's release to draw attention to what he called abusive trapping techniques.