Anchorage, Alaska (Reuters) - A judge declared illegal on Tuesday Alaska's controversial program of shooting wolves from the air to boost the population of moose and other game, prompting state officials to suspend the policy.
Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason said the Alaska Board of Game failed to follow its own requirements when it launched a program allowing private hunters to gun down wolves from an aircraft to remove the animals from the food chain.
Since the program started in 2003, licensed hunters have shot and killed hundreds of wolves by tracking the animals and shooting them from above in the face of protests from animal rights groups and the occasional tourism boycott.
Gleason ruled that the state failed to adequately address regulatory requirements, calling for proof that aerial wolf control is necessary and would be more effective than other, less-drastic steps to boost game populations.
"The Board is bound by its regulations," Gleason wrote. "A review of the enabling regulations for the aerial wolf control programs ... indicate that the Board failed to adequately address some or all of these regulatory requirements."
Alaska has halted the program pending further review of the ruling and the state's Division of Wildlife Conservation is trying to contact licensed hunters to inform them of the suspension, said Matt Robus, the division's director.
Gov. Frank Murkowski vowed that aerial wolf control will continue after some adjustments are made.
"I stand firmly behind the state's predator control programs, which are based upon sound science," the Republican governor said in a statement. "I look forward to prompt and appropriate action."
Other states have taken action to control wolf populations. Earlier this month, Idaho signed an agreement to place management of an estimated 500 gray wolves into state, rather than federal, hands.
The agreement gives ranchers permission to eliminate wolves that harass livestock and empowers Idaho wildlife managers to cut down wolf packs that make a dent in deer and elk populations.
Alaska's aerial wolf cull was authorized mostly in the interior part of the state, extending to five separate areas that comprise about 6 percent of its land mass, said Robus.
State officials said they are studying the decision to determine the proper legal response to it, while critics praised the ruling.
"It reaffirms what some of us have been saying, and that is that the programs are poorly grounded," said Vic Van Ballenberghe, a retired federal biologist.
Van Ballenberghe, a former Board of Game member during the administration of Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles, said the current administration has "cut corners" and launched wolf control programs for political rather than scientific reasons.
Alaska wolves are not classified as endangered or threatened, and licensed trappers harvest them for their fur each winter.