WASHINGTON -- Alaska's predator control program to kill wolves, which drew renewed national scrutiny during former Gov. Sarah Palin's bid for vice president, is under attack in Congress.
Two California Democrats have introduced legislation that would all but ban the practice of shooting wolves from airplanes to control their numbers. The legislation, introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. George Miller, would force Alaska game officials to declare a biological emergency that shows the imminent collapse of a species without the program.
Even if the state could demonstrate such an emergency, the law would limit aerial hunting to state or federal wildlife employees, barring private contractors that are currently allowed to kill wolves from fixed-wing airplanes.
"What this bill does is essentially makes it impossible for Alaska to manage wolf populations in any sort of responsible way," said Pat Valkenburg, deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "We finally have a program that works and to end it because of the emotional feelings of uninformed people is just not a good idea."
Alaska's Board of Game renewed its aerial predator-control effort seven years ago after complaints from hunters that a healthy wolf population was preventing moose and caribou populations from recovering in some areas, including parts of the state where subsistence hunters depend on game for food. Six areas of the state -- about 10 percent of the state -- have predator-control programs in place for wolves.
The legislation will close a loophole in the 1972 Airborne Hunting Act that bans most aerial hunting in the United States, but has allowed Alaska to issue permits to shoot and kill wolves from airplanes, on non-federal lands.
The proposal limits aerial hunting to employees of federal and state wildlife agencies. The legislation also would force state wildlife officials to prove a biological emergency, such as imminent extinction.
"Shooting wildlife from airplanes is not sport -- it is cruel and inhumane," Feinstein said in a written statement. "It undermines the hunting principle of a fair chase and often leads to a slow and painful death for the hunted animals. This practice should be banned."
BANNED BY VOTE
Alaskans have twice voted to ban such hunting, but the Legislature has overturned those bans both times. Last year, voters turned down a ballot measure that would have severely restricted the aerial hunting program.
The state's aerial program, long the target of the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife, drew renewed attention last year, during Palin's bid for vice president. The governor even mentioned it during her farewell speech, where she criticized "starlets" such as actress Ashley Judd for lending their fame earlier this year to the movement opposing aerial hunting.
In her July 26 resignation speech, Palin told fellow Alaskans to "stick together" in opposing "Outside special interest groups. Because you're going to see anti-hunting, anti-Second Amendment circuses from Hollywood," Palin said in her farewell address. "And here's how they do it. They use these delicate, tiny, very talented celebrity starlets. They use Alaska as a fundraising tool for their anti-Second Amendment causes."
"And by the way," Palin added, "Hollywood needs to know: We eat, therefore we hunt."
In the past, Defenders of Wildlife used its political-action arm to run political ads in Alaska targeting Republican U.S. Rep. Don Young for his record on environmental and renewable energy issues. Earlier this year, it launched a campaign called Eye on Palin. The campaign Web site, stocked with photos of Alaska's governor, included a count of the number of wolves killed in the state's aerial program, and another page for donations.
"It is true that Ashley Judd has expressed concern over the aerial gunning of wolves in Alaska," said Robert Dewey, vice president for government relations for Defenders of Wildlife. "But she's not alone. There are many other voices."
Conservationists say that Palin's turn as the Republican vice presidential nominee may have actually helped draw attention to aerial hunting, in a way unmatched by the "starlets" she criticized for lending their fame to the movement opposing aerial hunting.
"There's no question that Palin's selection for the Republicans elevated the issue to a higher national plane than ever before," said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.
"It cuts both ways," Pacelle added. "It makes it easy for Democrats to support our efforts. But it may taint our efforts with Republicans, because they may consider it a partisan issue. But it's never been a partisan issue. She didn't invent the issue. It's been a troubling aspect of Alaska's wildlife policy for many years."
Alaska's predator control program has long been a controversial method of managing wildlife, said Ted Williams, a Massachusetts-based outdoors writer, who wrote about the Palin administration's approach to predator control in the most recent issue of Audubon Magazine. Williams recalls a 1993 wolf summit where former Alaska Gov. Wally Hickel said, memorably, "you can't let nature just run wild."
"It has definitely flared up on the national stage before," Williams said. "But Palin has placed it there in a significant way. In a way it's good she attracted national attention to the predator issues with some of her absurd statements."
Williams, himself a hunter, characterized the state's program as a "war on predators" that treats caribou and moose as livestock, not wildlife.
"If you don't shoot a moose out of your truck window in Fairbanks, it's fun to blame it on the wolves," he said.
"No one's trying to eliminate wolves," countered Ted Spraker, vice chairman of the Alaska Board of Game. "That's as far from the truth as you can imagine. But in some areas and some isolated cases, we have a lot of wolves, and a lot of bears, and not a lot of moose, and a lot of people who depend on moose. It's especially important to subsistence people who live a subsistence lifestyle."
Erika Bolstad covers Alaska issues from McClatchy Newspapers' Washington bureau.