ANCHORAGE - A group calling itself Alaskans for Wildlife is hoping that once again the will of the people will be enough to stop the aerial shooting of wolves and bears in Alaska.
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Sponsors of an initiative to restrict Alaska's predator control program dropped off eight cardboard boxes Tuesday at the state Division of Elections office in Anchorage. Inside were petitions with 56,574 signatures, far more than the 31,451 required to get the initiative on the ballot in 2008. The signatures now must be verified by the election staff.
The initiative is basically the same one voters passed twice before in 1996 and 2000 banning land-and-shoot hunting of wolves, said co-sponsor Joel Bennett of Juneau, a former longtime member of the Alaska Board of Game. Both times, the Alaska Legislature gave the game board authority to develop the programs after the two-year initiatives had expired.
"We've been working for almost a year getting these signatures. We believe that a majority of Alaskans support this idea - that you don't do this unless there is a real emergency," Bennett said Tuesday from Anchorage.
Initiative sponsors say land-and-shoot has been revived under the guise of the state's predator control program.
The game board approved the most recent incarnation of aerial predator control that either allows gunners to shoot wolves from the air, or land first and then shoot. It has been expanded to five areas of Alaska, some of which also allow the shooting of bears.
"We are trying to be reasonable here," said Bennett of the initiative that would allow state biologists to shoot wolves from the air but only in cases where there was a biological emergency supported by science.
Messages left Tuesday with Board of Game officials were not immediately returned.
As with the previous two ballot initiatives, this one would not affect legal hunting of wolves and bears by sport hunters, trappers and subsistence users. What the initiative would do is stop the aerial hunting of wolves and bears, now authorized only within the state's predator control program.
Under the program, 564 wolves and a smaller number of bears have been killed. The program intended to boost moose and caribou population is entering its fourth year.
"From Anchorage to Juneau to the Bush, the message we heard was the same: 'Stop same-day airborne wolf shooting.' That's exactly what our measured ballot initiative will do," Bennett said.
In authorizing the most recent program, the Alaska Legislature passed a law allowing the state to issue permits to pilots and gunners in areas where wolves are driving down moose and caribou numbers.
The goal is to reduce wolf populations in each of the specified areas by as much as 80 percent annually, leaving a minimum number of wolves to ensure they are not wiped out.
Co-sponsor Nick Jans of Juneau said the airborne shooting of wolves is being conducted to satisfy the interests of hunters from outside Alaska, not to benefit rural Alaskans who rely on moose and caribou for food.
Initiative backers received most of their funding from the Alaska Wildlife Alliance and Defenders of Wildlife.
John Toppenberg, executive director of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, said the program is an attempt to turn Alaska's wild places into feed lots with artificially high numbers of moose and caribou.
"We think nature is a better architect than politicians and perhaps, those they appoint," he said.
Jans said the ballot initiative would place restrictions on the program but not end it entirely. Instead of private pilots and hunters, Jans said employees of the Department of Fish and Game should be doing the flying and shooting. Predators would be shot only when there was a biological emergency verified by sound science.
Empire reporter Brittany Retherford contributed to this article.