Judge halts aerial wolf-shooting plans

Animal-rights group threatens Alaska tourism boycott if court action doesn't end program

Posted: Friday, November 28, 2003

ANCHORAGE - A Superior Court judge on Wednesday issued a court order to temporarily prevent the shooting of wolves from airplanes under a state predator control program.

"At the order of the court, we're suspending operations for now," said Matt Robus, director of the state Department of Fish and Game's division of wildlife conservation.

The Darien, Conn.-based group Friends of Animals, along with seven Alaska plaintiffs, sought the temporary restraining order after the state issued three permits to allow pilot-and-hunter teams to shoot wolves in the McGrath area of Alaska's Interior.

Superior Court Judge Sharon L. Gleason issued the order late Wednesday after hearing arguments in the morning. She is also scheduled to hear arguments Tuesday on whether to issue a preliminary injunction sought by Friends of Animals to stop the program.

If that effort fails, the group will call for a tourism boycott of Alaska as they did a decade ago when 53 demonstrations called "howl-ins" were held at 51 cities nationwide, said Friends of Animals president Priscilla Feral.

"Basically, it is putting the economic screws to the Murkowski administration," Feral said of the threatened tourism boycott.

The first tourism boycott and strong national opposition resulted in former Gov. Walter J. Hickel imposing a moratorium on wolf control in 1992. Former Gov. Tony Knowles then suspended state-sanctioned wolf killing shortly after gaining office in 1994. Current Gov. Frank Murkowski, who took office in December, favors lethal wolf control.

The predator control program for the McGrath area is intended to reduce the number of wolves near the town and increase the number of moose calves so that there will be more moose for McGrath area residents to eat.

McGrath, which has about 470 residents, has a couple of local stores but is off the road system. Residents who want to shop at large grocery stores or department stores must fly to either Anchorage or Fairbanks, both about 300 air miles away, said Ken Parker, the village public safety officer.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates that McGrath area residents need between 130 and 150 moose, but harvests have been averaging between 60 and 90 moose for the past decade. The program calls for killing about 40 wolves this winter.

State lawyer Kevin Saxby argued Wednesday that even a temporary restraining order could mean scrapping the program. The program began in the spring with the relocation of brown and black bears from the McGrath area. Plans called for killing wolves in October and November to protect moose calves vulnerable to predation by wolves in the winter. More wolves would be removed in March, he said.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game issued three permits, one to a McGrath resident who will be ready to fly as soon as he picks up his permit at the agency's office in McGrath, Saxby said. Those who received permits were notified Tuesday.

"If at all possible this must proceed now," Saxby said. "If we lose those calves we will have to start all over again ... Both fiscal and scientific harm will happen to the state if we have to start all over again."

Whether the temporary suspension of the program will have a significant effect on the populations depends in part on the weather, Robus said. Bad weather between now and Tuesday would have grounded the pilots anyway.

"Wolf predation occurs throughout the winter," he said.

Saxby also pointed out that wolves are killed legally in McGrath now, both through hunting and trapping. He said snowmachines are allowed as long as the hunters don't shoot the wolves from the machines.

If plaintiffs are arguing that the wolf control program would do irreparable harm to the wolves, what about those already being killed? he asked.

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