WASHINGTON -- Alaska hasn't done its part to observe a 35-year-old federal ban on hunting wolves from aircraft, said a California lawmaker, who has filed legislation that will end the practice.
With a gray wolf named Atka at his side, U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., introduced a bill Tuesday that bans wolf hunting from planes or helicopters. The legislation will close a loophole in the 1972 Airborne Hunting Act that has allowed Alaska to issue permits to shoot and kill nearly 700 wolves from airplanes over the past four years, Miller said.
State officials say their wolf-control programs allow depressed prey populations to recover. In some areas, moose and caribou are under such constant attacks from wolves and bears that less than 10 percent of their young survive their first year.
But Miller said at a press conference, "The time has come to ground Alaska's illegal air war against these animals."
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who has often been at odds with Miller over the California congressman's involvement in Alaska issues, immediately fired back. Hunting is a state issue that Congress shouldn't be involved with, Young said in a statement.
"This bill is another deliberate attempt by radicals to federalize our country and defy the core principles upon which it was founded," Young said.
"States have the inherent right to manage their own wildlife populations. For the federal government to step in to one particular state is on par with a selective dictatorship, and as a population, we should be fearful that those in power are actively working to make this a reality," Young said.
The effort to ban aerial hunts is being led by Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington, D.C.-based wildlife conservation organization.
Alaskans have twice voted to ban such hunting. The Legislature has overturned those bans both times. Voters will get the issue again next year.
Aerial shooting "violates the concept of fair chase," said the organization's president, Rodger Schlickeisen. "Fair chase is basically the cornerstone of ethical hunting in this country."
State wildlife managers say they don't see the aerial shooting as hunting -- they call it "predator control."
Alaska's Board of Game began its aerial predator-control effort five years ago after complaints surfaced that a healthy wolf population was preventing moose populations from recovering.
"They're beautiful to watch," said Cliff Judkins, chairman of the state Game Board. "They're beautiful to listen to, when you're out there at a campsite. The wolf is a very valuable part of the ecosystem and they need to stay. But we just don't need the numbers."
WOLF DRAWS A CROWD
The wolf-control program is operated in five areas of the state. About 1,000 wolves are killed each year, most by trappers on the ground who want the animals for their hides.
"It's too bad that what we call the 'antis' have come out with this campaign that we want to slaughter all the wolves in Alaska," Judkins said. "That's just not the case at all. One of the only effective ways to kill wolves is from aircraft."
But Defenders of Wildlife had a secret weapon in the public relations battle over aerial hunting: Atka, a 5-year-old gray wolf, which drew a crowd of House staffers and onlookers and more cameras than usual for a press conference announcing new legislation.
Atka, who is more of a wintery white than gray, serves as the best possible ambassador for the conservation cause, said Spencer Wilhelm, operations manager at the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, N.Y.
"We want to teach people about wolves and what the human role is in their future," Wilhelm said.
For a predator, Atka leads a privileged life. He's fed about 15 pounds of food every three days or so -- usually venison, sometimes caribou, and occasionally trout.
And in fact, Miller's press aides warned when they sent out an announcement about Atka's appearance that "no food is allowed on the terrace when the wolf is present."
CENTER OF ATTENTION
Atka's normal habitat would be above the Arctic Circle, but he lives in his own 1-acre outdoor enclosure on the wolf refuge. Atka was raised by a breeder in Minnesota and is not domesticated, but he is familiar with humans, and can be led on a leash.
Tuesday, Atka's confident lope faltered when he saw the reporters and photographers gathered for the press conference -- the handsome wolf's tail retreated between his legs. That means he's uncomfortable with a situation, Wilhelm said.
But as a creature familiar with pack etiquette, Atka found his place in it: right at the center of attention. The golden-eyed wolf plopped down on the ground during the press conference, chewing on a water bottle until his 42 sharp teeth tore through it and he could lap up the water.
As the event closed, Atka retreated when his handlers wanted him to descend the stairs to the street. He seemed spooked by traffic.
Uncomfortable with the growing crowd, and with his tail between his legs again, Atka led his handler toward the cool comfort of the shaded marble steps leading into the Cannon building.
"Another special interest, trying to get into Congress," quipped a House aide with a video camera.
Find Erika Bolstad online at adn.com/contact/ebolstad or call her in Washington, D.C., at 202-383-6104.