A state judge Friday ordered the state to stop paying pilots and aerial gunners $150 per animal to kill wolves.
State Superior Court Judge Bill Morse, in issuing the order, said the cash payments are bounties, and the state Department of Fish and Game didn't have legal authority on its own to offer them. Morse said, however, that the Board of Game can create bounties.
The state is now considering options still available to boost wolf kill numbers, including state biologists shooting them from chartered helicopters, said Matt Robus, state director of wildlife conservation.
"We understand his judgment ... and we'll explore our options."
The judge's decision is the latest legal wrinkle in the long-running battle between conservation groups and foes of the state's aerial wolf-kill program. The order went into effect noon Friday, and the judge said he wants to revisit the issue by the end of next week.
Friends of Animals, the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, the Alaska Chapter of the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife filed suit Tuesday asking the judge to stop the bounty.
"This is divine," Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, said in a telephone interview from Connecticut.
Denby Lloyd, Fish and Game commissioner, announced March 21 the department would offer the cash in an effort to boost wolf kills in the five areas where the state's aerial predator control program is in place -- portions of the Interior and Southcentral.
The bounties are part of a larger four-year wolf-control program, designed to save caribou and moose. The program is behind schedule this year, especially in the Interior. A lack of snow in some areas, high gas prices and poor flying conditions have kept pilots on the ground, the state said.
State biologists want 407 to 680 wolves killed in the five areas by the time the predator-control season ends April 30.
A confirmed total of 124 wolves have been killed in those areas, 88 by aerial gunners and 36 by trappers and hunters, the state reported. Others have been taken by trappers and hunters but have not been presented to Fish and Game officials for sealing, the state said.
There are 7,000 to 11,000 wolves in Alaska, the state estimates.
Only pilots and gunners permitted to kill wolves under the predator- control program -- there were 193 as of Wednesday -- were eligible for the bounty if they turned in the left front legs of wolves. The legs provide information about health and age.
With help from a recent snowfall in the two Southcentral areas, permittees have killed 43 wolves since the payment was offered, the state said.
Only two people came to collect. They turned in a total of four legs before the judge's decision.
They were given promise of payment but no cash, said Cathie Harms, Fairbanks biologist. Because of the ruling, the state won't pay them, she said.
"My understanding is that money will not exchange hands," she said.
The plan for a $150 payment arose after the Board of Game asked Gov. Sarah Palin and members of her administration earlier this month to let department biologists join the hunting from helicopters because the killing would be quicker and more precise. Under current regulations, aerial gunners and pilots can use only airplanes.
A Palin spokeswoman said the governor preferred cash incentives because they are cheaper and said the state would consider chartering private helicopters only as a last resort.
Fish and Game officials claimed the cash offered under the new program was not a bounty, but an incentive for a select group of people that would provide the state with biological information. The state said they had authority under a law allowing the department to pay for biological specimens.
The judge rejected that argument.
"The payment of money for each wolf killed by a permittee is a bounty pure and simple," Morse wrote in his decision, a payment made to persons who perform a desired service.
It doesn't matter if only some people are eligible or if the money would help pilots buy gas, he said.
Valerie Brown, an attorney for Defenders and two other plaintiffs, argued that the bounty was illegal because the Legislature removed a law allowing bounties in 1984.
Morse didn't agree with that. The 1984 law, sponsored by former Gov. Bill Sheffield, included legislative history provided in the form of a transmittal letter from Sheffield. The letter stated that the Board of Game, not the department, can issue regulations concerning bounties, the judge wrote.
Brown said the order is a preliminary decision and she hopes to provide more information to convince the judge that the Game Board doesn't have the authority to create bounties.
Game Board chair Cliff Judkins said the board will listen to lawyers and staff about what to do next. If they recommend the Game Board create a bounty, the board could do that in an emergency order that would take a matter of days, possibly hours.
Daily News reporter Alex deMarban can be reached at email@example.com or 257-4310.