ANCHORAGE - The Alaska Board of Game on Tuesday approved the state's first program in more than 15 years to shoot wolves from aircraft. Opponents said the plan was inhumane.
"This is not something new. The board has been working on this for the last several years," said board chairman Mike Fleagle, who lives in McGrath, near one of the areas targeted because of declining moose populations blamed on wolf predation.
"We understand the importance of moose populations, particularly for subsistence reasons," Fleagle said at a news conference to announce details of the aerial control programs around McGrath in the Interior and large portions of the Nelchina basin east of Anchorage.
The action by the board is sure to stir emotions in and outside Alaska. On Monday, about 25 sign-waving wolf advocates protested a block away from the Millennium Alaskan Hotel, where the board was meeting. They were accompanied by four wolf-dog hybrids dressed in mock bulletproof vests.
Some of the advocates returned Tuesday, when the panel took up the issue.
Karen Deatherage, with Defenders of Wildlife, and other opponents said the decision was made based on weak numbers, not sound scientific surveys. Deatherage also said the board's action is a slap to Alaska voters, who twice in recent years have said no to aerial shooting of wolves.
"They've trampled on the voters' wishes and opened the door to the wholesale slaughter of hundreds of wolves," she said. "Personally, it makes me very sad."
Deatherage said other national groups are considering a tourism boycott, a threat in the early 1990s that helped persuade then-Gov. Walter J. Hickel to call off the last planned lethal wolf-control program.
Some members of the game board said they believe other Alaskans, particularly hunters and rural residents, want lethal wolf control to help boost populations of game animals.
Two rural hunters thanked the board for its decision at the news conference.
"We really depend on moose and caribou ... and in the past year I've seen a great decline in the cow and calf populations," said Ken Johns of Copper Center. He supports lethal wolf control done in a "professional and qualified way," he said.
Wolf control has had a spotty history of acceptance since before statehood. Over the years, bounties have been paid and wolves have been poisoned, trapped and shot from airplanes. In some areas, wolf numbers fell so low that moose and caribou flourished and then crashed because of over-browsing.
Support for widespread wolf control began to drop after statehood in 1959. Bounties were canceled and aerial sport hunting was banned in 1972. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game continued its predator-control efforts until 1986. A planned aerial wolf-control plan in the early 1990s was killed off by threats of a tourism boycott.
In ballot measures in 1996 and 2000, Alaska voters essentially banned aircraft-assisted land-and-shoot wolf hunting. Regulations allowing state biologists to shoot wolves from the air for predator control remain on the books, but Gov. Frank Murkowski won't let state employees do the work.
The state will use private citizens in their own aircraft to shoot the wolves in some target areas this winter, under a law adopted by the Legislature last spring.
Under the plan, about 40 wolves will be shot from planes over a 1,700-square-mile area near McGrath. In the 7,800-square-mile Nelchina region, between 100 and 130 wolves will be shot from the ground after being spotted by planes, said Matt Robus, director of the Department of Fish and Game's Division of Wildlife Conservation.