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Shooting gallery

Opponents howl as hunters in Alaska track wolves from the air.

March 23, 2004|J. Michael Kennedy | Times Staff Writer

Despite two popular votes to prohibit the practice, Alaskan hunters using airplanes have tracked and killed more than 100 wolves to increase moose and caribou herds.

The controversial policy has led to the killing of dozens of wolves in an area north of Anchorage, with the goal of eliminating up to 190 animals by April 30. Alaska has as many as 11,000 wolves and supporters want to expand the hunting areas.

The outraged environmental community contends that professional guides and outfitters, who stand to benefit financially from larger moose and caribou herds, are spearheading the campaign. State officials dispute that.

"It's getting uglier by the minute," said Karen Deatherage, who is leading the Alaska campaign against the wolf kills for the Defenders of Wildlife. Meanwhile, the Friends of Animals has organized dozens of "howl-ins" throughout the lower 48 states, where protesters are urging vacationers to boycott Alaska as a way to force the state government to reverse its policy.

The aerial tracking and killing of wolves has incited controversy in Alaska for at least three decades. In 1996, and again in 2000, voters championed a state ballot measure to outlaw the practice. But last year, the state legislature, acting upon a bill by Sen. Ralph Seekins, a Republican from Fairbanks, reinstated the practice to allow hunting wolves from the air to reduce predators.

"It gives a black eye to hunting traditions and values and creates an image of Alaska that is anything but welcoming to nonhunters," Rodger Schlickeisen, the president of Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement.

Matt Robus, wildlife division director for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said aerial wolf shooting is allowed only in a popular moose hunting area north of Anchorage known as Nelchina and around McGrath in central Alaska. He said the state Board of Game is the governing body that made the decision to allow the hunting to go on.

"The Board of Game is tasked to make these decisions," Robus said. "It's their job, not ours."

The purpose of the wolf-control program is to reduce predators so depleted moose populations can recover, according to the Fish and Game Department. Moose herds have declined by more than half in those areas and many communities in rural Alaska depend on moose for subsistence food.

But the board has been criticized for being top-heavy with hunters and trappers and sparse on those who might oppose the measure. Hunting is a multimillion-dollar industry in Alaska.

So far, all but a few of the wolves killed -- 119 as of last week -- have been in Nelchina, where vast, open space makes it easier to spot the animals and to land aircraft. Some wolves have been killed around McGrath, too, which is heavily wooded.

Robus also said the wolves in the much smaller McGrath area had learned to be wary of airplanes since the program began Jan. 22.

The Alaska Wildlife Alliance, among others, condemned the issuing of permits to civilian hunters to kill the wolves, contending that complicated oversight.

Deatherage said the Game Board will consider hunting bears in similar fashion to further increase the size of the moose and caribou herds.

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