State game managers will pay people to kill wolves in an effort to boost Alaska's predator- control program.
The 180 volunteer pilots and aerial gunners who are the backbone of the program can get $150 in cash for turning in legs of freshly killed wolves, Gov. Sarah Palin's office announced Tuesday.
Previously, the only reward was a wolf pelt they could sell, usually for somewhere between $200 and $300, said Bruce Bartley, Department of Fish and Game spokesman.
The state created its current wolf-kill program four years ago to protect the moose and caribou that wolves eat, and it's been controversial since day one. Animal-rights groups have sued unsuccessfully, sponsored "howl-ins" and urged tourists to boycott the state.
But the effort to boost moose numbers for subsistence-food gatherers and other hunters has its fans, particularly in parts of rural Alaska.
The Palin administration is anteing up cash because the number of wolf kills this winter is behind schedule, the state said Tuesday afternoon.
State biologists wanted 382 to 664 wolves killed by the time the snow that helps with tracking disappears this spring. The predator-control season ends April 30.
As of Tuesday morning, 98 wolves had been killed by aerial gunners, hunters and trappers.
Pilots have complained that fuel prices are too high to fly and there hasn't been enough snow on the ground to track the elusive animals, Matt Robus, Wildlife Conservation director, said in the release. There are also fewer wolves to kill now because of kills in past years, he said.
Robus could not be reached Tuesday evening.
Wolves reproduce quickly, with large litters, and the effort to boost moose and caribou populations could be set back if kill goals aren't met, he has said.
Volunteers gunners and trappers have done all the killing, eliminating 607 wolves since the program began four years ago. There are 7,000 to 11,000 wolves in Alaska, the state estimates.
The Board of Game, concerned about this year's low numbers, recently urged Palin to let state staff shoot wolves from helicopters. Shooting from helicopters that hover close to packs would be more deadly and humane than from the airplanes that are currently allowed, board members have said.
When the current program began, then-Gov. Frank Murkowski refused to let state staff and helicopters participate in the program, probably because of the backlash it might have caused from wildlife groups, Cliff Judkins, Game Board chair, said.
In response to the board's request, Palin asked Fish and Game officials more than a week ago to charter helicopters only as a last resort, said spokeswoman Sharon Leighow.
Palin prefers cash incentives because they are less expensive than renting helicopters and they help families where the wolf killing occurs, Leighow said.
In addition to paying cash, the department plans to:
* Permit more people to kill wolves by contacting those who have applied but never won a permit.
* Charter flights so state biologists can spot wolves from the air, then share the information with permitted volunteers.
If enough wolves aren't killed in two weeks, the state will consider renting helicopters and manning them with state gunners, said Denby Lloyd, state Fish and Game commissioner.
The state will use the left forelegs of wolves as biological specimens, which can help biologists determine wolf age and will assist the program in the future, Lloyd said.
The state has paid for wolf remains to use as biological specimens as recently as 2002 for wolves collected in the McGrath area, Lloyd said.
Bud Burris, a state biologist for 25 years before retiring in 1986, said the state ended its wolf bounty program in 1972, in part because wolf pelts had become so valuable there was no need to encourage kills.
The bounty program began before statehood in 1959, he said. Anyone anywhere in the state could earn the bounty and the program worked, improving moose and caribou numbers, he said.
State officials say the new cash incentive is not a bounty because it's being offered to a small group of people only this winter, and only in the five areas of the state -- mostly the Interior and Southcentral.
"It's definitely incentive, but we're viewing it as a surgical approach," said Lloyd. "It's not a widespread program and it's fairly well-controlled, so we don't consider it a bounty."
Hogwash, said Paul Joslin, a wildlife biologist with the conservation group Friends of McNeil River. If you're paying someone to encourage killing, that's a bounty, he said.
"They can sugar coat it, but that's what it is," he said. "What a shame. We've been marching backwards quite a while under this board and we need some change."
About 15 states had laws last year allowing governments to pay bounties for people who kill animals, though in many programs such bounties haven't been paid in years, according to Animal Protection Institute in Sacramento, Calif., which opposes lethal predator control.
States with active bounty programs often pay people to kill such animals as coyotes, which people blame for eating chickens or newborn sheep and cattle, said spokeswoman Zibby Wilder.
Judkins, the Game Board chair, said the cash will help get gunners in the air by reimbursing them for their fuel. But helicopters would be most effective because they offer stable shooting platforms that result in quick, multiple kills.
Daily News reporter Alex deMarban can be reached at email@example.com or 257-4310.
Wolf kill by the numbers
98: Number of wolves taken so far this season
664: Top limit state wants killed this season
7,000-11,000: Estimated number in Alaska
$150: New incentive for proof of a kill
1972: Last year state offered a bounty