ANCHORAGE - Alaskan voters are being asked to decide the future of the state's predator control program where aircraft are used to help track and kill wolves and bears.
The state says the program is necessary to increase the number of moose and caribou people rely on for food in rural Alaska.
Critics say the program caters to big game hunters and guides from urban areas, mostly Anchorage and Fairbanks, by manipulating game populations unnecessarily.
If approved, Ballot Measure 2 would prohibit the shooting of wolves and bears either from the air or once a plane has landed, unless the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game finds that a "biological emergency" exists and has adequate scientific proof.
The measure defines a biological emergency as one in which a prey population will irreversibly decline unless aircraft are used to reduce the number of wolves and bears.
It also would require state employees to conduct predator control. Now, private citizens are permitted to kill the animals. Since it began in 2003, nearly 800 wolves have been killed and a far fewer number of bears.
The initiative also would allow only the minimum number of predators to be removed to end the emergency.
Before Alaska statehood in 1959, shooting wolves from airplanes was common. Aerial sport hunting was banned in 1972 but the law allowed aerial shooting for predator control.
In 1996 and 2000, voters rejected using aircraft to help track and kill wolves. The legislature overturned the measures.
Nick Jans, co-sponsor of Ballot Measure 2, expects victory again in the Aug. 26 primary election. Alaskans for Wildlife collected nearly 57,000 signatures to get the initiative on the ballot. Defenders of Wildlife, a national wildlife conservation group, is one of its principal supporters.
"This is an issue that has been addressed and addressed again. It is a clear matter. The will of the people has already been known and we are just reasserting it here," Jans said. "We are both puzzled and enraged that we are back at this point again."
Joel Bennett, 64, a film and television producer who served on the game board for 14 years, is also co-sponsoring the measure. The problem with the state's aerial predator control program is that it goes too far, Bennett said.
"In essence, we just think that shooting animals from airplanes so distasteful Š it should only be used as a last resort, not as standard operating procedures to manipulate the high and lows of game populations all the time so there is a maximum amount for hunters," he said.
Wayne Regelin, former deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said if the ballot measure passes it means the end of a program, and along with it a "very important wildlife management tool that is used sparingly" in Alaska.
Regelin predicts if the measure passes the program will be tied up in lawsuits over what constitutes a biological emergency.
"What is an irreversible decline for crying out loud? Do they have to go extinct?" he said.
Safari Club International, which describes itself as the largest and most active big game hunting organization in the world, is the main contributor to Alaskans for Professional Wildlife Management, spearheading the opposition.
Since the aerial predator control program began in 2003 in the McGrath area, it has survived numerous court challenges. The program was expanded to operate in five areas of the state amounting to 9.4 percent of its land mass.
Jans, a 53-year-old writer in Juneau, contends that wildlife management decisions in Alaska are being made by a small group of sport hunters and professional hunting guides who are cozy with game board members.
"It is obvious to us that the predator control program, as it currently exists, is not a matter of scientific management but policy that is being basically stuffed down the people of Alaska's throats by a well-connected minority," he said.
Jans said what is at work is a "good old-boy network" with a distorted view of their place on the planet.
"It is a vestige of redneck Alaska, the old-fashioned idea that wildlife is all for us and we can do whatever we want with it and blasting things indiscriminately is the Alaska way of life and we are the supreme species," he said.
Donne Fleagle, a longtime McGrath resident who is married to former game board chairman Mike Fleagle, said the program has nothing to do with hunting. It is a game management tool that is helping people in rural Alaska put food on the table, she said.
"We are seeing cows that are birthing twin calves now," Fleagle said. "We are seeing a better survival rate for calves It has helped our moose population."
Fleagle, who also has a home in Anchorage, said being able to get enough moose is critical given the rising costs of living in rural Alaska.
"I don't know how long people want to live on store-bought meat or could afford it," she said. "I would hate to see village Alaska turn into a ghost town. This is the heart and soul of Alaska."
In other matters, Alaska voters also will be asked to vote on Ballot Measure 3. The measure would create a voluntary program of public funding for state election campaigns.