Opponents of the state's predator control program are blasting lawmakers and the governor for approving a $400,000 appropriation to educate Alaskans about the aerial shooting of wolves and efforts to reduce bears in some areas.
They say the capital budget money is really an attempt to influence voters, who will decide next year whether to ban aerial shooting and land-and-shoot hunting by private citizens.
"It's outrageous," said co-sponsor Joel Bennett of Alaskans for Wildlife. "It looks like it's a clear effort to thwart the public will."
State game managers don't know how they will spend the money but it won't be used to influence the election, said Ron Clarke, assistant director for the state's Division of Wildlife Conservation.
"We're a science-based agency," he said. The state will try to share that information in a way the public can understand, he said.
Aerial predator control lets private citizens shoot wolves from the air or conduct land-and-shoot hunting of wolves in five rural areas of the state. In the last year, the state has also liberalized bear hunting in some of those same areas, including no bag limits and land-and-shoot hunting of black bears in Game Management Unit 16 across Cook Inlet from Anchorage.
The effort is intended to boost moose and caribou numbers.
More than 700 wolves have been killed since the program began almost five years ago. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates there are 7,000 to 11,000 wolves in Alaska.
Wildlife biologists say that population can sustain an annual harvest of 30 percent to 40 percent of that number. The number of wolves the state wants killed each year is a fraction of that percentage. In the most recent season that ended last spring, for example, wildlife managers wanted no more than 664 wolves killed.
The initiative, approved for the August primary election ballot, will ask voters to change the law so that only Department of Fish and Game personnel can shoot wolves or bears from the air, or land and shoot the predators. The department would need to prove that a biological emergency exists, said Bennett, a former Board of Game member. In other words, that predators have killed so many moose or caribou that the game populations might not recover.
Alaska voters approved essentially the same measure in 1996 and 2000. Both times, the Alaska Legislature allowed the Game Board to create the programs after the two-year initiatives expired.
The money for the education campaign will help promote hunting and trapping, but the effort should emphasize the predator control program, according to a project description. A "major public relations effort" is needed to educate Alaskans about the value of the program, it says.
Sen. Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, requested the measure. He could not be reached Saturday.
GETTING THE WORD OUT
Fish and Game Commissioner Denby Lloyd would not comment about the education money when asked Friday.
He wrote a column in the pro-hunting Alaska Outdoor Council's summer newsletter saying the wildlife division plans to educate the public about predator control largely by distributing two publications through Fish and Game offices statewide.
A booklet will explain the science behind the program and an annual report will detail its goals and successes. One success has been in the 23,000-square-mile Game Management Unit 13, between Cantwell and Glennallen, where the effort has boosted moose numbers, game managers say.
This spring, the state reported that aerial moose surveys show moose increased by 14 percent and calves by 110 percent.
The publications will emphasize that wolves and bears aren't threatened and that the program won't change that, Lloyd wrote. They will also note that the state won't eliminate animals from areas where aerial hunting is allowed.
Clarke didn't think the appropriation would be used to pay for those efforts, he said.
Department officials are still working with the Game Board to determine how the $400,000 should be spent, he said. They hope to start the campaign by this fall.
The timing of the education campaign -- months before the election -- makes it propaganda, said Tom Banks, Alaska-based spokesman for Defenders of Wildlife.
"If it was some small amount, maybe $40,000 or something, I could see they'd get out basic info, but $400,000 will pay for an awful lot of campaigning," he said.
The Washington, D.C.-based group blasted the measure in a fundraising e-mail sent to members last week, saying Gov. Sarah Palin signed off on the "propaganda campaign to justify the state's barbaric wolf slaughter from the skies."
The group is wrong, Palin said Friday.
"My understanding is this program was funded by the Legislature to factually explain game management practices to Alaskans, and I don't have a problem with that," said Palin, who supports the state's predator-control program.
Find Alex deMarban online at adn.com/contact/ademarban or call 257-4310.