Flying at ground level across the Alaska wilderness in a small plane, following tracks in the snow and blasting wolves with semiautomatic shotguns is exactly what it sounds like -- great fun if you're into that sort of thing. Gov. Murkowski says it's "based on sound science." But Game Board members were cynically chosen for their desire to kill wild predators, not for their scientific aptitude. After Alaskans voted twice to stop the state from aerial hunting, the Game Board authorized their hunting buddies to do it with private, unregulated aircraft.
Judge Sharon Gleason's decision to allow resumption of aerial wolf-killing is narrow, administrative and in no way a scientific judgment. The Game Board got caught violating their own regulations, so they "tweaked" them by deleting the part that the lawsuit said they did not follow: the part about "public input." Alaska's predator control program is technically "consistent" but only within an unscientific framework.
State moose censuses have been inconsistent enough to be amenable to political interpretation. Inadequate moose censuses in McGrath showed 850 moose in 2000. This was labeled a crisis, as up to 3,500 moose were needed to meet local subsistence demand. A wolf- and bear-reduction program was approved, but a better census in 2001 indicated 3,600 moose! The issue faded away until the current board resurrected it and increased the moose objective up to 8,000 to accommodate nonlocal hunters. In upping the objective, the board failed to consider whether or not the available habitat could support 8,000 moose, even if all predators were removed.
The stated purpose of wolf control is to provide more moose for "subsistence." But according to compiled harvest data from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game itself, 50 percent to 85 percent of moose killed in most aerial wolf-killing areas are shot by urban, suburban and out-of-state hunters. One of my health care providers got his trophy moose out of McGrath, where $1.7 million was spent collaring and counting moose, relocating bears, etc. A lot of beef could have been shipped in for that price! Even for local residents, motoring convenience -- not subsistence -- is the criterion. Folks used to just boat up the Kuskokwim, drive or fly out and shoot moose. There are a lot of pilots in McGrath per capita. How can anyone be surprised to learn there are not enough moose in such popular hunting areas?
Twenty years ago in the Hatcher Pass area, moose were a nuisance in our yards and on winter trails. Now they are scarce for miles around. How can anyone be surprised to learn they were gunned down by those motorized columns of hunters coming up the Parks Highway?
Shooting wolves from aircraft is the inevitable consequence of a delusional game management program based on the politics of myth, machismo and money. The delusions are:
* That significant numbers of Alaskans are "dependent" on moose meat for their "subsistence" survival.
* That wolves wiped out the moose herds in "popular" motor hunting areas like the highway around Skwentna and Game Management Unit 13 in general.
* That nature can provide Alaska's growing, mechanized population with a "sustained yield" of moose in spite of human encroachment on choice moose habitat.
Each season I see fewer game (and nongame) animals and birds -- and more snowmachines and off-road vehicles. Yet I've never heard the governor, Legislature or Game Board address the "science" of any possible negative effects of the thousandfold increase in snowmachine traffic in moose wintering areas during their times of near-starvation (only that snowmachines "pack trails for moose"). There's no profit in the "science" of off-road traffic and motorized overhunting.
The numbers of moose killed per wolf are sheer speculation -- wolves also scavenge carcasses. And by authorizing private aircraft to kill wolves, there's really no way to tell how many are killed or how many are wounded and left to die. Alaska's privatized aerial gunning of wolves is broke-back management based on bad intelligence.
Calling it "scientific" is an attempt to confer legitimacy upon what is, in essence, an industrial harvest of Alaska's wildlife.
Rudy Wittshirk is an outdoorsman, writer and photographer. He lives in Willow.