Juneau -- The much-touted tourism boycott of Alaska appears to be a flop, and another winter of state-sponsored aerial wolf killing is set to begin in the next month or so.
But the state's controversial predator control program is not out of the woods. Connecticut-based Friends of Animals still hopes to stop it in court. And a group of Alaskans who don't like how the state is running the program are scrambling to collect enough signatures to get an initiative on the 2006 ballot.
"We're not a pack of greenie weenies," said Nick Jans of Juneau, one of the initiative sponsors. "We just want game management to be science-based and in a manner consistent with what the people of Alaska have already stated twice."
Alaska voters have twice, in recent years, banned the shooting of wolves from airplanes or shortly after landing. But the Legislature subsequently passed measures to ensure that private pilots could do both if participating in a state-sponsored predator control program. Last year 72 private pilots and 143 assistants obtained permits to shoot wolves under the program.
Jans said he is not trying to stop this latest predator control effort, just reform it. But the initiative would effectively make it impossible to continue the program, according to the chairman of the Alaska Board of Game, Mike Fleagle.
"It's a terrible idea. It would just totally eliminate the ability of the board and the (Fish and Game) department to do predator management," he said.
The initiative would require that Alaska Department of Fish and Game employees shoot the wolves, instead of using private pilot-gunner teams. It would also demand there be "adequate data" of a biological emergency, such as game populations being driven down, before airplanes could be used to kill in a predator control program.
The current program has resulted in the shooting of almost 400 wolves in the past two winters, as an attempt to boost the populations of moose and caribou for people to hunt and eat. State Fish and Game officials said they are encouraged by results so far but cannot yet tell how well it will work.
The program began around the Interior village of McGrath after local residents complained that moose were scarce and said it was because wolves and bears were eating too many calves. The state expanded the effort last winter to five areas of Alaska. Wolves can be shot from the air in some areas; in others, the airborne hunters must land before shooting.
Initiative sponsor Jans is a hunter and author of "Grizzly Maze," a book about Timothy Treadwell, the bear videographer who was killed, along with his companion, Amie Huguenard, by a grizzly on the Katmai coast in 2003.
He said having private hunters do the state's killing leads to abuses. Soldotna hunting guide David Haeg, who was working with the state's predator control program, was recently convicted of killing nine wolves by shooting them from his aircraft while outside of an allowed area.
Jans said he believes such abuse is widespread but it's just too hard to catch the culprits. State officials called Haeg a "bad apple," and pointed to his harsh sentence, which included spending 35 days in jail, losing his airplane and giving up his guiding license for five years. Wayne Regelin, Fish and Game deputy commissioner, argued that in today's Alaska there's not many places people can hunt from a plane completely unnoticed.
Regelin and Fleagle said the initiative requirement that Fish and Game employees do the wolf shooting themselves would be expensive.
Jans also said he believes that at least some of the wolf killing is driven by politics -- people wanting more moose and caribou -- rather than a demonstrated biological emergency.
Fleagle and Regelin said that, if the initiative were to pass, the state would be in court for years arguing over definitions of "adequate data" and "biological emergency."
The sponsors hope to get their initiative on the ballot for the general election in November, 2006. They need 31,451 signatures by Jan. 9. The signatures must come from two-thirds of the state House districts in Alaska.
Meanwhile, the Connecticut-based Friends of Animals, which Jans said his group has nothing to do with, said it still hopes to get the courts to stop the wolf kill. Priscilla Feral, the group's president, said the backup plan is to try to strengthen the tourism boycott against Alaska.
The boycott began in December 2003 with "howl-in" demonstrations across the nation. But it does not appear to be keeping visitors away from Alaska.
"At this point the impact has been minimal, at best," said Ron Peck, president of the Alaska Travel Industry Association, the leading tourism trade group in the state.
The number of visitors to Alaska this summer was estimated at 1.5 million. That's up from 1.3 million in 2003, according to the tourism association.
Daily News reporter Sean Cockerham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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