Offering a rare public opinion on one of Alaska's hottest issues, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game commissioner announced he opposes an effort to create a ballot measure banning airborne hunters from shooting wolves and bears.
McKie Campbell called the petition from Alaskans for Wildlife a veiled attempt to limit state predator control efforts with language that would likely end up in court.
"We were just concerned because it's an initiative that I think would have impacts that you don't realize when you are first reading it," Campbell said.
Phrases such as "biological emergency," "feasible solution" and "irreversible decline" all raise flags for Campbell. He said they are "undefined and just would guarantee a lengthy debate in court, at the very least."
The initiative's backers said Campbell's interpretation of their proposed law was wide of the target. A provision specifically allows the Alaska Board of Game to authorize a predator control program, but said any airborne shooting should be conducted by state employees and not private hunters.
The current plan calls for Fish and Game to issue permits to private hunter-pilot teams. More than 400 wolves have been killed since 2003 in five areas around the state where officials say wolves and bears have caused declines in local moose populations. The state recently announced applications for the 2005-06 wolf control efforts are available.
"It gives hunters a black eye," said Nick Jans, a well-known Alaska writer from Juneau. "It gives Alaska a black eye."
Jans said the group is especially concerned about future efforts to cull brown bears. While there is no current plan to shoot bears from aircraft, research has shown bears have as much or more to do with moose predation than wolves.
Biologists relocated nearly 120 bears from the McGrath area during the 2003 and 2004 summers to see the effect on the local ungulate population. Campbell said the Board of Game has also allowed an increase in brown bear hunting where predation is an issue. For instance, in some areas of the Interior, hunters can now bait grizzlies.
Alaskans for Wildlife don't want managers to take that next easy step to shooting bears from airplanes.
"I think plenty of Alaskans will start to squawk if we start letting hunters shoot bears from airplanes," Jans said.
Jans said the initiative is the third of its kind from Joel Bennett, a former Game Board member. Bennett was out of town and unavailable for comment on Monday. The last attempt passed with about 60 percent of the vote, Jans said, making it clear Alaskans oppose aircraft-aided hunting.
Tom Walker, a Denali Park and Preserve writer and photographer who used to be a licensed big game hunting guide and wildlife protection officer, said the group is not opposed to hunting or predator control. He said the current plan "opens a Pandora's box to illegal hunting."
"I think this whole thing sends a terrible signal to the public about hunting," he said. "Rather than an anti-hunting thing, I see it as a pro-hunting thing to establish ethical and acceptable boundaries."
Jans said the group will need more than 30,000 signatures from registered voters now that the lieutenant governor's office has approved the petition's language. The group will employ paid signature gatherers in addition to the efforts of volunteers and supporters.
The completed petitions must be submitted to the Division of Elections by Jan. 8 to qualify for the November 2006 general election. It is a steep challenge that spurs Jans to carry a petition booklet with him at all times.
"I crash dinner parties with it," he said.
Board of Game Chairman Mike Fleagle was heartened by Campbell's response to the initiative. He said previous gag orders by former Gov. Tony Knowles on predator control or airborne hunting ballot measures always left Fish and Game employees unable to express opinions, leaving the public with an impression of support.
He agrees with Campbell's assessment.
"I think it would effectively stop our programs," he said. "We have survived a couple of challenges in court. I think the way the language is written would kill our programs."
He also said he didn't think the measure was necessary because it is unlikely the current board would approve aerial bear hunts.
"We're moving pretty carefully on bear control," he said.
State law allows citizens to bypass the Legislature and make new laws, though the process has several hurdles. First, a group wanting to introduce a ballot measure must make an application to the lieutenant governor. The Department of Law issues an opinion and the lieutenant governor either certifies or rejects the application.
If certified, the petition language is written and 500 signature books are produced.
Supporters must collect a total number of signatures equal to 10 percent of the turnout in the previous general election from two-thirds of state's House of Representatives districts. Only the signatures of registered voters count.
Each signature is checked by the state officials. If the group meets the requirements, the petition is put on the next statewide election ballot. If a majority of voters approve the ballot measure, it becomes law 90 days after the election results are certified.
Previous ballot measures brought medical marijuana, a definition of marriage and a ban on billboards to Alaska statute. Twice, efforts to ban the practice of same-day land-and-shoot hunting of wolves passed, though the Legislature subsequently altered those laws.
The petition's title and second paragraph clearly prohibit the shooting of a "free-ranging" wolf, wolverine or grizzly bear the same day a person has been airborne. The Board of Game would be allowed to authorize a predator control program involving the shooting of bears or wolves from the air under certain conditions:
* The Fish and Game commissioner must make "written findings based on adequate data demonstrating that a biological emergency exists" and that no other means would solve the problem.
* Any shooting is conducted only by Fish and Game employees.
* The program is limited to the specific geographical area where the emergency exists.
* Only the minimum number of animals necessary to end the problem should be removed.
Breaking the law would be a Class A misdemeanor with penalties up to one year in jail and a $5,000 fine.
In addition to the fuzzy language, Campbell also believes the petition's writers are knowingly pushing the state toward more aggressive Outside resistance by requiring the killing to be done by state employees with the expense paid by taxpayers. He said Gov. Frank Murkowski's plan to use only private hunters in predator control efforts has kept some of the heat off.
Jans doesn't like his group being associated with those mostly Outside efforts to end all predator control. He and Walker have both killed wolves before and support a reasoned approach to the problem.
"We're not Friends of Animals," he said. "We're not a shadow front for PETA. We're longtime hunters."
Chris Talbott can be reached at 459-7575 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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