Anchorage, Alaska - Our country's last great wilderness, the pristine stretches of tundra and fragile ecosystems in Alaska, has come under attack. A loophole in the federal Airborne Hunting Act of 1972 is being exploited by allowing private citizens to participate in the aerial hunting of wolves under the guise of performing "wildlife management."
Hunting is a big moneymaker in the state; non-residents are required to hire a certified hunting guide to hunt many big game species at a cost of up to $20,000. This creates an incentive for the state to increase game populations while giving them a reason to justify reducing predator populations.
"Some of the aerial hunting teams are also directly benefiting, because not only do they profit by taking wolves, they are also commercial hunting guides who get paid by out of state hunters to guide them on a hunt in the same area," said Wade Willis, Alaska representative for the Defenders of Wildlife and former biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Each winter since 2003, the state has issued hundreds of permits to aerial gunning teams who are authorized to kill wolves in five areas of the state. The areas total more than 63,000 square miles - larger than the state of Wisconsin. Since 2003, these teams have killed more than 1,000 wolves, almost twice the population of wolves in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Many wounded wolves remain unaccounted for as they wander off to die in the bush, raising the initial count of 1,000 killed to an undetermined number.
The United States Conservation code, chapter 742j-1, prohibits anyone from shooting an animal while being airborne. To do so would subject the hunter to a $5,000 fine and up to one year in jail. But that's not the whole story - the code provides an exception if a hunter is operating under the authority of any state or the U.S., to protect "land, water, wildlife, livestock, domesticated animals, human life, or crops" - essentially "predator control" for the good of man and his possessions.
According to Willis, citizens are being allowed to conduct hunts as "agents of the state" under permits issued by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Citizen gunner teams are authorized to use aircraft to shoot wolves from the air and keep the pelts.
"They sell the fur just like a sport hunter; tell me what the difference is? The only difference is these hunters use an airplane."
In an attempt to rein in the loophole, the Protect America's Wildlife Act was born. The PAW Act is federal legislation aimed at clarifying the Airborne Hunting Act. The act was presented in the House last year and garnered 129 co-sponsors, it is anticipated it will again be presented in the House this year, with some minor revisions, by its author, Congressman George Miller, D-Calif. There is a good possibility the bill will also be introduced in the Senate this year.
The PAW Act makes it clear that states can only conduct activities prohibited by the Airborne Hunting Act to respond to legitimate biological concerns and other emergencies, not to authorize otherwise illegal hunting practices.
"Defenders of Wildlife believe very strongly that private citizens should not be participating in aerial predator control, department personnel should be doing it only in the case of a legitimate biological emergency," Willis said.
However, according to an Alaska Department of Fish and Game booklet, "Understanding Predator Management in Alaska" found on its Web site at www.wildlife.alaska.gov, views range "from the belief that wildlife populations should not be manipulated for human benefits, to a demand for actively managing populations to allow people to harvest a higher percentage of wildlife populations annually."
According to the Web site, no single management approach can satisfy all users. ADF&G uses different management strategies, with some areas being managed more aggressively to maximize harvest opportunities. The department says it's committed to maintaining sustainable predator and prey populations and will continue to manage Alaska's wildlife populations with long-term health, sustainable harvests and conservation as its guiding principles.
In 2007, ADF&G estimated there are 7,000 to 11,000 wolves in Alaska, approximately 30,000 grizzly bears and more than 100,000 black bears. About one million caribou live in Alaska in 32 herds and about 200,000 moose are widely distributed throughout the state.
Science alone, according to ADF&G, cannot dictate whether predator control programs should or should not be conducted; those choices are value-based decisions made through public processes.
"The scientific community has clearly and overwhelmingly spoken out against Alaska's predator control programs and the state has ignored it," Willis added. "The American Society of Mammalogists, America's oldest and largest professional society of biologists, strongly opposes it. It is interesting to note the state claims predator control is being conducted using scientific data, yet in the five years since predator control has resumed, not a single scientific paper [from the state] has been published. That really says it all."
According to Willis, the commercial hunting industry in the state has been poorly regulated allowing big game to be over harvested. Science has proven that wolf populations follow big game populations. "My concern is that when you start taking top level predators out of the system and combine global warming issues, which are extremely big in Alaska, you are going to have dramatic effects on the ecosystem and big game populations. I believe that trying to manipulate big game populations by only focusing on killing predators is a no-win situation.
"Sport hunting does not respect Native traditional values. You don't go out and harvest the largest bulls, the best breeder stock, and expect your population of big game to continue to provide the highest possible yield. From sheep to caribou to moose, sport hunters focus on the best of the herd. It's a big issue."
In a natural ecosystem, wolves harvest the young, old and sick members of a herd, allowing the survival of the best genetically-viable stock to continue breeding for future generations. Big game hunters focus on the biggest and strongest members of the herd, the most genetically-viable breeding stock.
Defenders of Wildlife is a conservation organization that promotes the scientific management of wildlife resources. They are not an animal rights organization.
"Sarah Palin wants to turn Alaska into a game farm. That is not what any of us want, not the Native community or anybody else," Willis said. "Defenders supports adaptive management strategies that are broad-based and promote the long term health of the entire ecosystem. Simply killing wolves and bears to promote human harvest of big game is not based on scientific principles; it's a political agenda."
"The state has approved predator control when it is not clear that predators are causing the decline in big game populations," said Caroline Kennedy, senior director of field conservation for Defenders of Wildlife. "Money is at the root of a lot of what is going on."
In addition to Alaska, other states are attempting to suppress predator populations and artificially increase game populations. Alaska is being strongly influenced by powerful hunting groups, according to Willis, who are not taking into account the long-term health of the ecosystem or the well-being of game species.