Sierra Club: The Planet--1996
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The Planet
Alaska Face-off

When Alaskan Gov. Tony Knowles (D) took office in 1995, Club leaders cheered one of his first actions: canceling the controversial aerial shooting of wolves by state wildlife biologists that caused a national uproar when it was implemented in 1994. Knowles announced that on his watch, any wolf-control project in Alaska would have to be economically feasible, scientifically sound and supported by the public.

Club leaders wish those standards had been applied to an "intensive management bill" passed by the Alaska state Legislature just before Knowles took office. This law mandated that when caribou, moose and sheep herds decline, natural predators must be killed in order to boost the prey herds for human hunters.

Conservationists strongly oppose the law, because it manages predator populations to best serve hunters and does not take into account the other factors beside natural predation -- such as severe winter weather, excessive hunting and habitat changes -- that may account for declining "big game" populations in Alaska.

Better news for some of Alaska's wolves, wolverines and foxes came last year when the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed regulations to ban the controversial practice of same-day airborne land-and-shoot "trapping" of wolves in national parks and wildlife refuges. The hunting method allows people with trapping licenses to land and shoot "furbearers" the same day they fly into an area, provided the hunter walks 100 yards away from the plane.

"This not only violates the fair-chase principle, but some unscrupulous 'trappers' run the animal to exhaustion before landing and shooting, or they simply shoot it from the air," says Nancy Michaelson, administrative assistant and volunteer coordinator in the Alaska field office.

Though same-day airborne hunting is now prohibited in national parks and wildlife refuges, it is allowed on state, private, Bureau of Land Management and national forest lands. Polls show that Alaskans are overwhelmingly opposed to the practice. In fact, citizens have gathered enough signatures to place an initiative on the 1996 ballot asking voters to ban it.

Now the state is toying with a new way to control the wolf population: sterilization. A new program -- created by an advisory committee of sport and subsistence hunters, federal and state advisory officials and the Northern Alaska Environmental Center -- aims to reduce the wolf population by 60 percent in the habitat of one large caribou herd that was decimated by overhunting earlier this century. The Sierra Club opposes the plan, which calls for relocating many of the animals and sterilizing some males.

"Though state-sponsored wolf control was bungled to such a degree that Governor Knowles stopped it, his enthusiasm for this new plan is less encouraging," says Michaelson. "Sterilizing, capturing and relocating wolves is not an acceptable way to manage them. But under Alaskan law, this plan is on target: it's managing the wolves to best serve hunters. That's why we've got to change Alaskan law."

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