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Conservation Groups Ask Judge to Halt Wolf-Kill Reward Program

Bounty or Incentive?  The state has offered $150 to gunners, pilots who bring in animal's left foreleg

Alex deMarban / Anchorage Daily News / March 28, 2007

Conservation groups Tuesday asked a state judge to immediately stop the state from paying a bounty for dead wolves.

Department of Fish and Game officials announced last Wednesday they would pay aerial gunners and pilots $150 for turning in the left foreleg of wolves in an effort to boost a wolf-kill program that's behind schedule this winter.

They call the program an incentive, not a bounty.

In the request for an injunction, the conservation groups say it's not only a bounty, it's illegal because the Legislature repealed laws allowing bounties in 1984.

Defenders of Wildlife, the Alaska Wildlife Alliance and the Alaska Chapter of the Sierra Club filed suit in state Superior Court in Anchorage.

In a separate motion filed independently in the same court Tuesday, Friends of Animals and an Alaska resident asked that the state's entire aerial-kill program be shut down. The federal airborne hunting act prohibits airborne bounty hunting, they argued.

The two injunction requests are part of cases filed since August seeking to end the state's aerial wolf-killing program. Superior Court Judge Bill Morse recently consolidated the cases and is considering them together.

Both requests cite dictionary definitions to explain why the cash offering is a bounty, including one from Webster's that calls a bounty a reward designed to encourage the killing of noxious animals, especially if offered by the government.

The state is offering "payment for proof you've killed an animal they're trying to reduce in a predator-control area," said Tom Banks, Defenders' Anchorage-based spokesman. "That makes it a bounty."

Fish and Game Commissioner Denby Lloyd said last week the cash is not a bounty because it applies to a select group of people for a short time and the wolf legs will yield scientific information.

Bounties in the past were broad efforts designed to reduce animals across large portions of their ranges, he said.

About 180 permitted gunners and pilots are eligible to receive the money. Previously, their only financial incentive was selling the wolf pelts.

The Board of Game created the aerial wolf-kill program four years ago to boost moose numbers. It covers five areas of the state -- mostly in the Interior and Southcentral -- comprising less than 10 percent of Alaska.

Not enough wolves have been killed this year because high gas prices and bad flying conditions have grounded pilots, officials say. In the Interior areas, there hasn't been enough ground snow to help pilots and gunners track wolves.

State biologists wanted 382 to 664 wolves killed in the five areas by the time the predator-control season ends April 30. As of Tuesday, at least 115 wolves have been killed by aerial gunners, hunters and trappers, officials said.

The state estimates that there are 7,000 to 11,000 wolves in Alaska.

In the two predator-control areas in Southcentral Alaska -- one around the Copper River, the other around the Skwentna River northwest of Anchorage -- a good snowfall and clear weather have helped pilot-gunner teams kill 16 wolves since the offer was made, said Bruce Bartley, Fish and Game spokesman.

Those two areas might meet kill goals, he said.

No one has turned forelegs into state biologists yet to collect money, he said.

Left forelegs can tell scientists if a wolf is an adult, Harms said. Also, the density of the marrow provides information about wolf health.

The state has authority to offer the money under a law allowing Fish and Game to pay hunters for biological specimens, Lance Nelson, a senior assistant attorney general for Alaska, said Tuesday.

Collecting wolf legs for a brief period won't provide useful scientific information, said Banks, with Defenders.

"It appears to be an excuse for having a bounty program," Banks said.

The cash payment stems from a request earlier this month by the Game Board asking Gov. Sarah Palin to let state staff use helicopters to kill wolves.

Only airplanes are allowed now. Helicopters would be more efficient because they can hover over packs, allowing gunners to kill many wolves quickly, board members said.

Palin said helicopters should be used only as a last resort. State officials decided to offer the cash incentive. If enough wolves aren't killed soon, Fish and Game will consider putting state biologists in private helicopters to hunt wolves, Lloyd said last Wednesday.

Judge Morse will consider the motions Friday at 10:30 a.m., said Valerie Brown, an attorney representing Defenders.

Daily News reporter Alex deMarban can be reached at ademarban@adn.com.

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