An Anchorage judge shot down Alaska's wolf control program on Tuesday, saying the state Board of Game did not follow its own rules when it instituted the aerial killing of wolves to enhance moose and caribou herds around the state.
State officials, however, said the decision is based on a technicality, not biology, and are hoping to resuscitate the state's lethal predator control program in a matter of days.
Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason said in a 32-page ruling that the Game Board failed to demonstrate what alternative means for reducing wolves had been used in each area and why they wouldn't work, stipulations that are required by the Wolf Conservation and Management Policy for Alaska when considering airborne shooting of wolves.
Gleason went over more than 2,000 pages of documents provided by the state and determined "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."
The state has been issuing permits to certified pilot-gunner teams for the last three years to shoot wolves from the air by planes or to land and shoot them in areas where moose and caribou are considered important sources of food. The five areas where the state has initiated wolf control are Game Management Units 12 and 20E near Tok, Unit 13 in the Nelchina Basin, Unit 16B west of Cook Inlet near Anchorage, Unit 19A in the central Kuskokwim and Unit 19D East near McGrath.
As of Tuesday, the total number of wolves killed since the program started in 2003 stood at 445. The Department of Fish and Game estimates the wolf population in Alaska between 7,000 and 11,000 wolves.
As a result of Gleason's decision, the Department of Fish and Game suspended its aerial wolf control program Tuesday and is examining what needs to be done to get hunters back in the air, according to Commissioner McKie Campbell.
"The ruling is a minor setback," Campbell said in a press release, noting that Gleason ruled in favor of the state on virtually everything else, including the biological data the department used to implement the program.
"The department and Board (of Game) are doing everything we can to ensure that this interruption to our predator control programs is as short as possible," the commissioner added.
The department was in the process of calling Game Board members to arrange a special meeting in Anchorage prior to a scheduled meeting next week, he said.
As he has since taking office in 2002, Gov. Frank Murkowski stood firmly behind the state's predator control programs, which he said are based on sound science.
"I look forward to prompt and appropriate action from the Board of Game," he said.
The state Game Board makes regulations regarding hunting and wildlife management issues in Alaska.
Sharon McLeod-Everette, the lone Fairbanks representative on the seven-member board, didn't hear about the court ruling until early Tuesday evening.
"We'll figure out how to fix it," she said.
In the meantime, the department was scrambling Tuesday to notify the more than 100 permit holders by telephone that the program has been suspended, Division of Wildlife Conservation Director Matt Robus said.
Technicality or no technicality, the judge's decision was a long-awaited victory for Friends of Animals, the Connecticut-based animal rights group that sued the state in November 2003.
Friends of Animals has been dogging the state for years over its wolf-control policies, going so far as to organize two tourism boycotts of Alaska to protest the killing of wolves.
Even though she hadn't yet read the ruling, Friends of Animals President Priscilla Feral was elated.
"We can't be anything but happy with this conclusion," Feral said in a phone interview from Connecticut.
Proponents of killing wolves to make more moose and caribou for hunters viewed the judge's decision as a technicality.
Sen. Ralph Seekins, R-Fairbanks, who formulated legislation to circumvent a 2002 ballot initiative that prohibited aerial hunting of wolves, said the Legislature will do whatever it can to revive the state's aerial predator control program.
"Whatever we need to do, either regulatory or statutory, we'll do to make sure we have an effective predator control program," said Seekins, an advocate of wolf control.
"Picky, picky," was the reaction of Wasilla's Rod Arno, executive director of the Alaska Outdoor Council, the state's largest hunting lobby. "It's a technicality."
Fellow AOC member Dick Bishop of Fairbanks agreed.
"It just demonstrates how complicated the whole subject of fish and wildlife management is now and how it is susceptible to arguments and objections and conclusions that don't have much to do with wildlife management," the retired state wildlife biologist said. "It just has to do with crossing the T's and dotting the I's. "
Only 24 wolves have been killed by permittees so far this winter and Arno said the suspension of the program shouldn't have much effect on the number of wolves killed if the Game Board can get hunters back in the air in the next month. December and January are typically the slowest time of year for wolf hunters because of the short daylight hours and cold temperatures. Most of the wolves are taken in March and April, he said.
"As long as they fix it by the end of February," Arno said. "The days aren't long enough to waste your time going out now."
News-Miner staff writer Tim Mowry can be reached at 459-7587 or firstname.lastname@example.org .