Anchorage, Alaska -- The state's controversial aerial wolf hunting program is grounded tonight after an Anchorage Superior Court judge rules that a bounty placed on wolves is illegal.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game wants to lower the wolf population in the Interior to allow the numbers of moose and caribou to increase.
The state set a goal for hunters in airplanes to kill at least 382 and up to 664 wolves this winter.
But as of a couple days ago, the state says only 151 wolves had been killed.
To boost the numbers, the commissioner of Fish and Game announced what it calls an incentive plan last week, offering $150 to hunters for every wolf they gun down.
That brought a request from several animal rights groups for a restraining order against the program.
This morning, the groups and the state went before Judge William Morse.
Attorneys for Friends of Animals and Defenders of Wildlife argued that the commissioner lacked the authority to put a bounty on wolves.
The groups say only the Board of Game could create an incentive program by passing new regulations.
However, the state claims the commissioner does have the power in order to gather biological information.
"That's what we do for chronic wasting disease or we what we might want to do some day for chronic wasting disease or what we might want to do for avian influenza," said Kevin Saxby, assistant state attorney general. "The commissioner needs to have broad authority to purchase the biological specimen he deems necessary to the fulfillment of his statutory measures."
"The notion that they are using this in an attempt to collect specimens is clearly an after-the-fact justification for this program," said Michael Grisham, an attorney for Friends of Animals.
Judge Morse granted the temporary restraining order, ruling there's little doubt that the incentive program is a bounty and that Fish and Game Commissioner Denby Lloyd exceeded his authority.
The judge says restraining orders general last 10 days, but he says he could rule to extend it even longer.
Judge Morse says this is a complicated issue, so he's asking both sides to go back flesh out their arguments and they'll proceed from there with another hearing.
Meanwhile, one option the state is considering is continuing the aerial wolf hunt with armed biologists in helicopters instead of licensed hunters aboard airplanes.
Time is also a factor for the state. This winter's hunt is scheduled to end April 30.