For wolves in certain areas of the state, Ballot Measure 6 could mean the difference between life and death.
For supporters of predator control, a no vote Nov. 7 by Alaskans could put more caribou and moose meat on the table. And for Juneau's Joel Bennett, the measure is about honoring a decision voters made four years ago.
A professional nature photographer, Bennett put his job on hold in 1996 to push a controversial proposal banning same-day-airborne hunting of wolves. Bennett and his group, Wolf Management Reform Coalition, got the question on the statewide ballot and 58 percent of voters opted to ban the practice. The vote meant hunters could no longer spot wolves from aircraft, land on the same day and hunt the animals.
"It was a vindication of a long struggle of trying to expose this nasty practice for what it is," Bennett said.
After serving 14 years on the state game board, Bennett had come to believe hunters commonly were using aircraft to herd wolves into open areas where they could land their aircraft and easily kill the tired animals an "unfair" practice he likens to "dropping a bomb on a raft of ducks." It's illegal to herd, harass or molest wolves with a plane or any mechanized vehicle, but Bennett said it was happening anyway because the law was difficult to enforce. He said the best way to stop the practice was to ban same-day-airborne hunting.
"Anyone who has any experience in hunting in rural Alaska will tell you that you cannot spot a wolf, land a mile away, and wait for that wolf to come over the pass, shoot it, and get many wolves that way," Bennett said. "The way you get them is to take that airplane and buzz the wolf and to keep buzzing it until it goes out onto a frozen lake or other area where the plane can land, and the hunter can jump out with a semi-automatic rifle and blaze away."
Four years ago, Bennett thought voters had stopped same-day-airborne hunting for good. But last April, lawmakers approved a measure to once again legalize the practice in areas approved for predator control by the state Board of Game. The move prompted Bennett and his group once again to take the issue to the statewide ballot. If voters approve Ballot Measure 6, the law passed by the Legislature would come off the books and the ban would be reinstated.
For state Sen. Pete Kelly, a Fairbanks Republican, the issue is about preserving moose and caribou some Alaskans depend on, and preventing wolf attacks on children. A long-time supporter of predator control, Kelly last session sponsored the bill to partially lift the ban on same-day-airborne hunting. The law took effect in July; now he's campaigning to stop voters from repealing it.
"This bill in question does not gut a 1996 voter initiative," Kelly wrote in a prepared statement. "It simply corrects a flaw in that initiative that has allowed wolves to become a threat to life and property in many communities in rural Alaska."
Kelly said a recent wolf attack on a boy near Yakutat highlights the need for the new law. He said just two months before the April attack, representatives from across the state warned lawmakers it would happen.
"They pleaded with the Legislature to pass the law the animal rights groups are asking (voters) to repeal," Kelly has said.
Bennett said such wolf attacks are extremely rare and rural residents support the ban. But Kelly's bill drew approval from a cross-section of lawmakers, including some Democrats representing rural residents who say wolves have reduced the number of moose and caribou available for human consumption. Sen. Georgianna Lincoln, a Rampart Democrat, said the bill would help her constituents "who are experiencing a dismal decline in moose population."'
Wayne Regelin, who heads the state Division of Wildlife Conservation, said same-day-airborne hunting can be an effective tool for controlling wolf numbers in areas with enough open space for pilots to land. But he said moose and caribou populations don't always grow when wolf numbers decline.
"Prey populations don't necessarily get bigger, but they don't get smaller," Regelin said.
He said prior to 1996, hunters and trappers annually bagged about 1,200 wolves with roughly 30 percent taken by same-day-airborne hunters. That number went down after voters banned land-and-shoot hunting in 1996, and since then, wolf populations have grown, Regelin said.
"(Hunters and trappers) are probably still taking about 900 wolves in Alaska this year, but we probably have twice as many wolves than we did six years ago," he said.
If voters allow the new law passed by the Legislature to stay in effect, Regelin said the annual wolf kill probably would not rise to pre-1996 levels because land-and-shoot hunters would be limited to predator control areas approved by the state game board. The board so far has designated five such areas comprising about 6 percent of the state, including the McGrath area, several areas between Fairbanks and the Alaska Range, and the Nelchina Basin near Anchorage. Regelin said some of those areas are too heavily wooded for pilots to land, but same-day-airborne hunting probably would significantly reduce the wolf population in the Nelchina Basin and have some effect near McGrath.