Anchorage, Alaska (AP) -- Alaska's lethal wolf control program under which hundreds of wolves have been killed is illegal, a judge ruled Tuesday.
In a case going back to November 2003, Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason ruled that the state failed to follow its own regulation when authorizing the aerial wolf control program, where pilot and gunner teams were allowed to shoot the wolves from the air.
Given the judge's ruling, the program has been suspended, Matt Robus, director of the state Division of Wildlife Conservation, said soon after the judge issued her ruling. People with permits to kill wolves in the five areas of the state where the program is under way were being notified, he said.
"Meanwhile, our attorney is still analyzing what the judge had to say. Based on what we hear from him we will decide if there are technical things that can be addressed or whether it is bigger than that," Robus said.
Gleason, who went over more than 2,000 pages of documents offered by the state, found that the Alaska Board of Game did not follow some or all of the state regulations when authorizing the program in the five areas.
The court found "that the Board of Game failed to adhere to its own regulation regarding the control of predation by wolves when it adopted these aerial control plans," Gleason said in her 32-page ruling.
More precisely, the state failed to provide required justification for the program, including previous measures that failed to work, Gleason said. The game board also failed to explain why alternative means for reducing the number of wolves would not work, the judge said.
The board also gave no explanation for how it set the wolf reduction levels in the different areas, ranging from 40 percent to over 90 percent, she said.
"The Board is bound by its regulations," Gleason said. "A review of the enabling regulations for aerial wolf control programs ... indicates that the Board failed to adequately address some or all of these regulatory requirements in each of the applicable GMU (game management units) in which it has authorized wolf control."
The ruling was a long-awaited victory for Friends of Animals, a Darien, Conn.-based animal rights group that led the fight against the wolf-killing program and previously had failed to get the judge to issue an emergency injunction to stop it.
"She has ruled that the wolf control program is invalid and all the underlying regulations are invalid," said Friends of Animals president Priscilla Feral, who added she was "tremendously gratified with Judge Gleason's ruling."
"It (the law) requires that they have data and present the data and establish the facts that are required in those regulations. They can't just make stuff up," said the plaintiffs' lawyer, James Reeves of Anchorage.
Robus said it was too early to tell if the program can be salvaged.
"I'm not sure what the procedure is to fix it is. I think ... we need to evaluate what Judge Gleason had to say and what action to take."
Gov. Frank Murkowski said he expected the game board to work quickly to answer the judge's concerns.
"I stand firmly behind the state's predator control programs, which are based upon sound science," Murkowski said.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner McKie Campbell called the ruling "a minor setback." He said the program was invalidated because the judge found the Board of Game's regulations were inconsistent.
"The state can make its regulations consistent," Campbell said.
The board was planning to meet early next week to address the concerns raised by the court.
"The department and Board are doing everything we can to ensure that this interruption to our predator control programs is as short as possible," Campbell said.
The program is aimed at boosting the number of moose and caribou in areas where residents say wolves are killing too many, leaving them with too few for food. State biologists estimate that Alaska has 7,000 to 11,000 wolves. Robus has said there are some early indications that the program is working.
Since the program began in 2003, more than 400 wolves have been killed. The state set a goal of another 400 this winter. The state issued more than 100 new permits last month.