Two men contracted to kill wolves in a state predator-control program near McGrath have been slapped with numerous criminal charges that accuse them of shooting the animals from their planes outside the prescribed area, according to court papers.
David Haeg, 38, of Soldotna, and Tony Zellers, 41, of Eagle River, each face five counts of shooting wolves from a plane, two counts of unlawful possession of game, and one count of lying about where they shot the wolves.
Haeg, owner and operator of Trophy Lake Lodge, is also charged with two counts of trapping in closed season and one count of failure to salvage game.
Each charge against them is a class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $10,000 fine.
According to Alaska State Troopers, Haeg and Zellers last March applied for and were granted a state permit allowing them to kill wolves on the same day the two hunters were airborne in an area near McGrath -- a practice that is usually forbidden under state law.
The tactic, part of a predator-control program approved by the Alaska Board of Game in 2003, was designed to eliminate wolves in a 3,300-square-mile area surrounding McGrath to help the moose population there grow.
But charges say Haeg and Zellers on numerous occasions shot wolves outside the prescribed area -- in one case, as far as 80 miles from the nearest border of the legal hunt zone -- and then falsified paperwork to the state about where the wolves were killed.
Troopers also believe the two men caught wolverines out of season in snares and in one case failed to return to the snares, leaving a salvageable wolf to rot, according to the court papers filed last week and this week.
Both men have pleaded not guilty to the charges against them, prosecutor Scot Leaders said Tuesday. Haeg could not be reached for comment. Zellers declined to talk about the case when reached at his home in Eagle River.
Charging documents say both men admitted to troopers they had killed or wounded nine wolves from their airplane outside the legal hunt zone in March. In all of the cases, Haeg flew the airplane while Zellers shot at the wolves with a shotgun.
The wolves were fired upon as they ran along riverbanks, spread out in trees or stood along a ridge-line near a moose kill, charges say. In some cases, Zellers shot at multiple wolves but missed. In other cases he wounded the animals and had to finish them off when he landed.
Troopers have seized the plane used by the two men. It could be forfeited to the state permanently if they are convicted.
According to airplane ownership records, the aircraft is owned by Haeg.
Prosecutors say Haeg told troopers he lied to the state about where the wolves were killed "because he wanted to be known as a successful participant in the aerial wolf hunt," the court documents say.
Wildlife enforcement trooper Brett Gibbens, who pieced together the case, could not be reached Tuesday. But his supervisor, Lt. Steve Arlow, deputy commander of the Alaska Bureau of Wildlife Enforcement, wrote in the troopers' fall newsletter that Gibbens, a trapper, had a great deal of personal knowledge of the wolf packs around McGrath -- about their pack sizes and coloring.
Gibbens figured out pretty quickly that something was amiss, Arlow wrote. "The area the permit holders (claimed) to be involved in ... and the color phases of wolves they were harvesting did not add up in his mind," Arlow wrote.
Gibbens interviewed the hunters about the type of ammunition they were using and the areas they were working in.
On March 26, while flying in his personal aircraft on his day off, Gibbens found suspicious airplane ski tracks in the snow along with wolf footprints. He followed the wolf tracks over the next few days, which eventually led him to some of the wolf-kill sites. The same airplane ski tracks were found at the sites, charges say.
At one site, "Running wolf tracks ended abruptly with blood and wolf hair in the track, and there were airplane ski tracks and human foot tracks where someone had loaded the wolf into the airplane and taken off again," according to the charges.
"Because of (trooper) Gibbens' expertise in the area of wolf hunting from aircraft and aircraft ski track patterns in snow, he could read the crime scene like a good novel," Arlow wrote.
Haeg and Zellers have been arraigned on the charges and are not in custody, Leaders said. Their next court date is scheduled for Jan. 7, he said.
Daily News reporter Tataboline Brant can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4321.