The Alaska Board of Game made changes to its wolf control program during an emergency teleconference Wednesday that members hope will allow aerial gunners to start pulling the trigger again later this week.
A week after the Department of Fish and Game suspended the program in reaction to a court ruling in a lawsuit brought by an Outside animal rights group, the game board tried to satisfy the legal shortcomings noted by an Anchorage Superior Court judge that halted the program.
Declaring the situation an emergency based on declining moose numbers in certain areas, the game board repealed the current predator-control plans for five game management units and adopted more-detailed plans to address issues raised by the court.
"I think we've covered our bases," Juneau board member Ron Sommerville said.
The seven-member board voted unanimously to adopt the new plans during the 8 1/2-hour teleconference.
The Department of Law's Kevin Saxby, who serves as the game board's legal counsel, predicted Lt. Gov. Loren Leman would sign the new regulations by Friday "barring some order that we not go forward."
Almost 450 wolves have been killed by aerial gunners in the past three winters as part of the state's wolf-reduction effort to boost moose and caribou populations in areas where residents say there is not enough wild game to subsist.
This winter, the state has issued 157 permits to pilot-gunner teams in hopes of killing more than 400 wolves. Only 24 wolves had been killed when the state suspended the program on Jan. 17 following a 32-page ruling issued in response to a suit filed by the Connecticut-based animal-rights group Friends of Animals, which has opposed the state's wolf-control programs for the better part of two decades.
Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason ruled the game board failed to adequately justify aerial killing of wolves and noted several inconsistencies in the plans that rendered them invalid.
In response, the game board revisited each plan and addressed those issues by standardizing the number of wolves that will be killed, adding more detail about the declining moose populations, discussing why other methods won't work and detailing how residents of the area are being affected by the lack of moose and caribou.
At one point, while talking about why other methods to remove wolves aren't economically or biologically practical, board members addressed the possibility of supplemental feeding of predators to prevent them from eating moose and caribou.
"We don't have large stockpiles of moose carcasses to feed wolves and bears," Chairman Mike Fleagle said.
Friends of Animals Executive Director Priscilla Feral questioned how the game board could "patch up" the holes in the wolf control plan so quickly and said the animal-rights group will continue its attack on Alaska's program.
"If they think they're going to fire wolf control back up tomorrow, then we're going to be back in court," Feral said in a phone interview from Connecticut.
The consensus among board members was to get hunters back into the air as quickly as possible, especially since the majority of wolves are taken in the next few months when daylight hours increase and wolves are easier to track.
Sommerville noted that the game board has taken several steps to reduce human harvest of moose while at the same time liberalizing the harvest of wolves and bears, all to no avail. It wasn't until aerial wolf control began three winters ago that those moose populations began to rebound, he said.
"We have reduced the amount of predation on significantly depressed prey populations," Sommerville said. "To stop in the middle of this process would be a disaster in my opinion."
Because wolves are capable of reproducing rapidly, a wolf-control program must be carried out for at least four years to be effective, the state's top wolf biologist, Mark McNay of Fairbanks, told the board. He cited a 1997 study by the National Academy of Sciences on predator control in Alaska commissioned by then-Gov. Tony Knowles.
Wolf populations have been increasing since airborne hunting of wolves was made illegal by a ballot initiative in 1996, said Matt Robus, director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation.
Fish and Game officials estimate there are 7,000 to 11,000 wolves in Alaska. In the Interior, one wolf eats an average of four to seven moose a year, according to McNay.
The five areas being targeted are parts of Game Management Units 12 and 20E near Tok, Unit 13 in the Nelchina Basin, Unit 16B across Cook Inlet from Anchorage, Unit 19A in the central Kuskokwim River region and Unit 19D East near McGrath.
According to the new plans, wolf numbers will be reduced 60 to 80 percent in all five areas over a five-year period and each area has a minimum number of wolves that must remain, based on the population before the program started.
Board member Ted Spraker of Soldotna noted that the number of wolves taken in most of the five areas had more than doubled as a result of aerial wolf control in the past two years.
"This clearly points out that even though trappers do the best they can and hunters do the best they can, it does take aerial shooting to get the number of wolves stated in our objectives," he said.
Other board members agreed.
"It's obvious we need additional help," Wasilla board member Cliff Judkins said. "Airplanes are the only thing that work."
Fairbanks board member Sharon McLeod-Everette said trappers can only cover so much ground on a snowmachine. With the high price of gas, that area will shrink, she said.
"Aerial capability allows getting to the hinterlands where other types of measures can't be used," she said.
With the rising price of gas and heating oil, fewer people are trapping and residents in the Bush are more dependent than ever on moose and caribou because they are paying more for fuel, said McLeod-Everette.
"That's their grocery store," she said.
Neither is it a matter of ethics, Sommerville said.
"This is not a fair chase or sport hunting issue," he said. "This is purely a predator-control program.
"It's clear the hunting and trapping of wolves is not going to take the required number of animals these programs require to be adequate."
Nonetheless, Saxby warned the board that the aerial wolf-control program would likely land in court again.
Staff writer Tim Mowry can be reached at 459-7587 or firstname.lastname@example.org .