When land-and-shoot wolf hunting was legal in Alaska, hunters sometimes harassed
wolves to excess, chased them to exhaustion through deep snow and shot directly
from the air. These practices were all serious violations of state and federal
regulations with strong penalties for convictions. As a biologist in the field,
I witnessed violations and heard about others across a broad area of the
During the 1980s and 1990s, several high-profile cases of illegal aerial wolf hunting were prosecuted. One involved a guide with a bow hunter client. They hunted on a national wildlife refuge with two airplanes. After chasing a wolf in deep snow to the point where it could run no more, the hunter wounded the wolf with an arrow before finally dispatching it.
Public outrage over this and similar incidents led to a ballot initiative in 1996 to ban land-and-shoot wolf hunting. It passed by a wide margin in nearly all election districts. Those of us involved in the battle against this practice thought we had seen the last of it but the Legislature soon tried to resurrect it. A ballot referendum in 2000 overturning the Legislature's action again passed by a wide margin. Clearly, Alaska's public wanted no more misuse of airplanes by wolf hunters.
But a recent case of alleged flagrant abuses by two wolf hunters reopened old wounds ("Aerial wolf hunters face charges," Daily News, Nov. 10). They are charged with obtaining permits to shoot wolves in an area near McGrath approved for predator control, then shooting animals as far as 80 miles away from the control area. Allegedly, they shot from the air with shotguns, killing some wolves and wounding others. If so, how did this happen?
When the predator control program at McGrath was first designed in 2001, careful consideration led to planned wolf reduction through helicopter shooting by Alaska Department of Fish and Game employees. This was practiced in the 1970s and was proven to be the most efficient and humane way to reduce wolves when necessary. Those familiar with the record knew that letting private pilots shoot wolves invariably leads to abuses.
But when the plan was implemented in 2003 by the Murkowski administration, the decision was made to use private pilots. This went against advice from Fish and Game staff and from several former Game Board members with a long record of involvement in the controversy. And it paved the way for private pilots to once again misuse airplanes and violate regulations.
There are now six separate areas in Interior and Southcentral Alaska approved for predator control. These total nearly 40,000 square miles. Dozens of aerial wolf shooting permits will be issued this winter and more than 500 wolves may be taken in addition to the 1,500-1,700 normally taken in recent years by ground-based hunters and trappers. How many instances of illegal hunting will the pilots commit? Because the country is vast and enforcement efforts are limited, those caught will be only a small fraction of those guilty.
Proponents of wolf control claim that ethical considerations and fair chase standards don't apply. They claim this is not hunting -- the goal is to shoot wolves and therefore anything goes. But when pilots exploit their permits to shoot wolves outside control areas, when they use shame- ful methods that offend hunters and non-hunters alike, it is hunting of the worst kind, hunting that gives all hunters a black eye and affects the future of hunting.
Some of those who promote wolf control also overlook illegal actions. They think every dead wolf means one live moose so the more wolves that are shot the better. How they are shot is irrelevant. As a lifelong hunter, I disagree. Hunting ethics are important. While some hunting methods are equivocal, others clearly offend most people. Alaska's voters have twice banned airplane wolf hunting, but it's occurring now over a broad area. And it's accompanied by illegal, unethical and offensive aerial shooting that affects us all. Isn't it time to reconsider this highly controversial issue?
Vic Van Ballenberghe has researched moose and wolves in Alaska for 30 years and is a former Game Board member.