First of a multi-part series exploring this highly complex, volatile and often secretive issue.
There has been an outright war against wolves in Alaska by every government since the state's inception.
Lethal control measures include but are not limited to: Aerial gunning, legal hunting, permitted shooting, snowmobiling, trapping, and 'denning' (removing pups too young to leave the den and bashing in their heads).
Dependent pups also die when their parents are legally killed by shooting or trapping during breeding season, leaving infants to starve. Pups are also gassed in their dens.
Wolves are treated as a disease rather than a crucial part of a healthy, fully functioning ecosystem.
Worse, even biologists and those opposing the current predator control policies may be operating under misinformation.
But why has there been such a concerted effort to eradicate or control this intelligent and social species?
Let's start with the controversy over aerial gunning.
If $20,000 per chartered hunt isn't enough to cause politicians to turn a blind eye to sound science or ethics, then pressure from the massive and well-funded hunting lobby in Alaska is.
According to a May 2009 release from Indian County Today, "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."
The 1972 act prohibits the aerial gunning of wolves except in cases where humans or livestock are at risk. But the aerial hunting now going on is not about protecting lives. It's about sport.
According to author Brenda Austin, "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." (Emphasis: reporter)
Wolves are highly intelligent, social and sophisticated animals. They are doting parents, with the whole pack taking responsibility for raising the pups. They form deep and lasting friendships. The alpha pair is monogamous and mates for life, showing devotion and a family structure that many humans can only envy.
In effect, a pack is an extended family; Aunts, uncles, cousins, all working together and living as a community. When a pack member is thoughtlessly gunned down by so-called sportsmen, especially if one of the alpha animals is taken, the entire pack is thrown into disarray and mourning.
If you cried as a child when Bambi's mother was killed, imagine the real-life damage done by hunters to a close-knit wolf family.
Sport hunters don't always abide by ethical guidelines, even under government-permitted hunts. Important members of radio-collared study-groups have been shot by aerial hunters despite pleas from scientists to spare these families.
Even life-long hunters and trappers abhor the Palin administration's tactics as being unnecessary and unsporting. Please see the video by Defenders of Wildlife.
Read some of their comments here.
Twice before, according to Caroline Kennedy of Defenders of Wildlife during a recent phone interview, aerial hunting of wolves has been voted down by the people of Alaska. The 1972 Federal Airborne Hunting Act was instituted to prevent such abuses.
In fact the majority of state residents are adamantly against the so-called predator control measures being used to artificially inflate herd numbers for the benefit of human hunters. Even the 'need' for humans in outlying areas to hunt for subsistence is questionable: More and more humans are pouring into these once-pristine areas, then demanding ever greater numbers of game hunt. So to get it, to force numbers of herd animals to grow beyond the natural and healthy carrying capacity of the ecosystem, wolves are treated as inconvenient pests and trophies for rich hunters.
Proponents claim only a certain percentage of the total wolf population is being reduced so as to sustain harvestable numbers of game.
In fact, there are no accurate population numbers for wolves in Alaska. Reports are based on the eye-witness testimonies of hunters, of all things, and other unscientific hearsay. "The management of game in Alaska is based, not on ecological principles but by a board of hunters and consumptive users, depending on the government make-up at any particular time," Caroline told me. So herd and predator populations are intensively managed for the benefit and convenience of sport, trophy and subsistence hunters, not the good of the wilderness. In her words, "Even though it is supposedly about preserving balance, it is a de facto aerial sport-hunting program."
Despite the objections of hundreds of wildlife biologists, the powerful sportsman/hunting lobby has the money and clout to turn Alaska into a huge, carefully managed game-park for the benefit of those who wish to use wildlife for sport killing. All predators are being targeted for intensive control methods, including black and brown bears, as well as wolves.
Governor Sarah Palin herself is a life-long hunter who enjoys shooting game with her family. Obviously she has a vested interest in continuing to 'harvest' wildlife for her own ends.
But to place a bounty of $150 for the severed foreleg of each wolf killed, while disregarding sound science, and for the Governor of Alaska to indulge in such blatant self-gratification is disturbing, if not downright alarming.
Since Alaska has one of the last, vast, relatively unspoiled wilderness areas left in the United States, to turn this ecological treasure into a giant game farm for sportsman seems short-sighted, at best, and from a scientific standpoint, downright sacrilegious.