Wolf Song of Alaska News

State of Alaska wants helicopters to rescue wolf-kill program

BEHIND SCHEDULE: Fuel costs, bad weather leave biologists far short of goal to kill 382 wolves.

ALEX deMARBAN/Anchorage Daily News/ March 9, 2007  

With the state's wolf-kill program severely behind schedule -- costly fuel and uncooperative weather have grounded many volunteer pilots and gunners -- game managers want state helicopters to come to the rescue.

They need a decision from Gov. Sarah Palin to make it happen.

State biologists wanted at least 382 wolves killed before the snow melts. Snow allows pilots to track them.

But gunners have killed only 38 wolves so far this winter, said Matt Robus, wildlife conservation director.

March, with long daylight hours and ample snowfall, has proven to be one of the better killing months. But the clock is ticking, Board of Game members said Wednesday at their Anchorage meeting. If the state doesn't meet its goal, the four-year program could be set back, they said.

The controversial program -- mostly in Southcentral and the Interior -- is designed to help hunters by killing the wolves that eat moose.

Volunteer pilots and gunmen have done all the shooting, eliminating about 550 wolves since the program began. There are 7,000 to 11,000 wolves in Alaska, the state estimates.

Helicopter gunners would be more efficient for shooting wolves, board members said.

The last administration drew the line at allowing helicopters, said Cliff Judkins, Game Board chairman.

It was too politically volatile, Judkins said. Also, Gov. Frank Murkowski thought the program would be less controversial if local volunteers did the killing instead of state biologists. Volunteers benefit by selling pelts and the satisfaction they get from helping hunters who need meat for their tables, supporters have said.

Murkowski is traveling overseas and could not be reached, said Jim Clarke, his former chief of staff.

This winter, pilots have complained they can't afford to fly because fuel is expensive, Robus said. Also, some areas haven't had enough snowfall, while others have lost snow cover to blistering winds, making tracking difficult, he said.

Fish and Game officials have met with Palin's staff to discuss getting the governor's approval to use state biologists and state helicopters. Palin hasn't had much time to consider the question, said spokeswoman Sharon Leighow. She found out about it Thursday morning.

"She's aware it's a viable option but she hasn't made up her mind," Leighow said.

The state owns five helicopters that could be used when they're not rescuing people or fighting fires, Leighow said. Also, the governor might consider renting choppers from the private sector, she said.

Using state helicopters could cost from $200,000 to $300,000, cutting into other parts of the program, Robus estimated.

The cost of doing nothing are high, Robus said. Wolves reproduce with large litters. If enough aren't killed, they can flourish, reducing moose numbers and setting the animals up for a crash if there's a bad snow year that makes feeding and fleeing predators difficult, he said.

Moose have increased in two of the five areas, in part because of the wolf kills, state biologists said. Annual calf survival rates near McGrath have increased from 27 percent to between 40 percent and 52 percent, said Cathie Harms of Fairbanks.

Over the last six years, moose numbers are up at counting sites in the Copper River region, and calf numbers are up 110 percent, from 292 to 612, according to Bruce Bartley, spokesman.

Helicopters would help, Judkins said. Gunners, instead of trying to hit animals from a plane moving 70 mph, could hover just 20 feet from wolves, taking good aim and killing packs quickly, he said.

Helicopters are "more efficient, more humane, and there's less stress on the animals," Judkins said.

There would be no wounded wolves, only dead ones, said Ted Spraker, board member.

"It's surgical," he said.

John Toppenberg, head of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, said he still wouldn't support the program if helicopters were used. The state has never proven there's a biological emergency necessitating protection of moose, he said.

He agreed, however, that using helicopters is more humane.

It takes several wolves to bring down a moose, he said. Gunners in planes shred packs, leaving remnant animals that struggle to survive. Using state biologists would also help, he said.

"It's more organized, more targeted, and the surgical precision of the kill would be far more effective," he said.

The Board of Game plans to ask the governor in writing to allow state helicopters, Judkins said.

Daily News reporter Alex deMarban can be reached at ademarban@adn.com or 257-4310.

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