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Alaska Revives Aerial Wolf Control Program

Jeanette J. Lee / AP / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / January 27, 2006

Anchorage, Alaska (AP) -- The state's wolf control program, which allows shooting of the animals from the air, was reinstated Thursday, more than a week after a judge ruled program illegal.

The state Board of Game filed redrafted regulations with the lieutenant governor's office for its five aerial wolf control areas in response to the Superior Court ruling, which said the state failed to follow its own rules when authorizing the program.

"They have filed the regulations. They are effective immediately," said Annette Kreitzer, chief of staff to Lt. Gov. Loren Leman.

Animal rights groups fighting to shut down the program may return to court to argue that the process of rewriting the rules was illegal.

The board changed its regulations Wednesday at what it called an emergency meeting. Such meetings allow relatively rapid changes to existing rules without input from the public.

Last week, Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason ruled the program illegal, saying the game board failed to provide required justification for the program. She also said the board did not explain why alternative means for reducing the number of wolves would not work.

The board also gave no explanation for how it set the wolf reduction levels - ranging from 40 to 90 percent - in the different areas, Gleason said.

New regulations adopted by the board this week included adding wolf and moose population estimates that, the board says, justify the aerial hunting program.

The board also added a list of aerial hunting alternatives that it deems unfeasible. They include destroying wolf habitat by burning or bulldozing, sterilization, relocation, stocking areas with more moose and feeding roadkill to wolves as another food source.

Jim Reeves, the lawyer representing Friends of Animals and seven Alaska plaintiffs, said terming the meeting an "emergency" could be illegal. Friends of Animals, a Darien, Conn.-based animal rights group, has led the fight against the wolf-killing program.

"We do not regard it as an emergency when an agency needs to adopt regulations to fix a problem of its own making," Reeves said. "The clients we represent, or someone else, might go to court and ask a judge about whether these are legal."

The aerial wolf control program is intended to boost moose and caribou populations in five areas of the state. The program got its start in 2003 in the McGrath area of Alaska's Interior where residents had long complained predators were killing too many moose, leaving them with too few for food.

About 400 wolves have been killed so far under the program, which permits pilot and gunner teams to shoot the wolves from the air. The state intends to kill another 400 wolves this year.

Officials with the state Department of Fish and Game said the meeting's emergency status was justified because the program would have been irreparably damaged if halted at this time of year. Snowfall and increasing light makes this the best season to reduce wolf numbers.

"This is the most effective time for predator control of these wolves," said Sarah Gilbertson, special assistant to the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "The next couple of months are crucial."

The redrafted regulations are only valid for 120 days because of their emergency status. The board aims to make the new rules permanent in March at a meeting with the public present.

Board of Game chairman Mike Fleagle said the regulations will be made permanent, even if public feedback is mostly critical.

"We've been through the public opinion battle in the past," Fleagle said. "I would anticipate the board would vote to make those regulations permanent."

Alaskans voted in 1996 and again in 2000 to prohibit a practice for killing wolves known as land-and-shoot hunting. Pilots could spot wolves from the air, then land and quickly shoot them.

But the state always has had authority to kill wolves from the air, provided it was to help moose and caribou stocks grow.

Alaska is home to the largest remaining population of gray wolves in the U.S. State biologists estimate about 7,000 to 11,000 wolves roam the state.

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