At the same time, Superior Court Judge William Morse upheld the practice of shooting wolves from planes and helicopters.
The program was challenged by Friends of Animals, Defenders of Wildlife, the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, and the Sierra Club, who sued the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Board of Game in 2006 after the Board extended the areas where aerial gunning was allowed.
In his decision, Judge Morse examined the entire history of Alaska's wolf control programs. His ruling upholds the aerial gunning program as a whole, while banning the practice in four areas covering up to 15,000 of the total of about 60,000 square miles covered by the program.
The areas where the judge banned aerial gunning are the areas into which the Game Board extended it in 2006, notably covering the entire Forty Mile caribou herd near Tok and also in an area across Cook Inlet from Anchorage.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates there are now between 7,700 and 11,200 wolves in the state. State wildlife managers say they prey too heavily on caribou and moose and that the aerial shooting program will increase the populations of these animals needed by subsistance hunters.
Hunter retrieves the body of a wolf shot from a plane. (Photo courtesy Wolf)
But the conservation groups maintain that the science on which the Game Board bases its decisions is not sufficient to justify killing more than 700 wolves since the program began in 2003.
From her office in Darien, Connecticut, Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, said, "Our efforts in the lawsuit stopped aerial wolf control in 12,000 - 15,000 square miles of Alaska - that's four regions into which the state had expanded their reckless killing schemes in 2006. They've opened 60,000 square miles to aircraft and helicopter-assisted shooting as the bureaucracy is hell bent on killing wolves all across the state."
"These ghastly forays must be halted by public publicy, a majority of voters on a ballot initiative in August, and through other reforms and legal challenges," said Feral. "Alaska's mean-spirited predator control programs are a blight on the continent. Friends of Animals is commited to holding the Board of Game's feet to the fire; their process is a sham."
In his ruling, Judge Morse acknowledged the heated political climate surrounding the issue. "The Court cannot ignore the political war that has been raging for a decade between those who favor wolf control programs and those who oppose them," he wrote.
"The public has passed two initiatives to stop certain wolf control programs; the legislature has twice reauthorized the Board to implement the programs. But the Board's recent actions have to be evaluated on a narrow stage," Judge Morse wrote, concluding that the Board did not violate the law when it adopted the aerial gunning program at issue in the case.
Alaska wolves number between 7,700 and 11,200. (Photo by John Hyde courtesy ADFG)
Alaska voters will again have an opportunity to weigh in on aerial wolf control when they go to the polls in August.
Commenting on the ruling, Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, said, "This reinforces the need for the ballot initiative on this issue in August. Defenders will continue to work with Alaskans for Wildlife and others to ensure the people's right to vote and once again restrict the aerial hunting of wolves."
But meanwhile, the Board of Game intends to reinstate the areas excluded by the judge. Board of Game chairman Cliff Judkins told the Associated Press "the problems can be corrected through emergency regulation," which could happen as early as this week.
In Washington, House Democrats introduced legislation last September that would protect wolves, bears, and other wildlife from airborne hunting.
The Protect America's Wildlife Act, or PAW Act, was introduced by California Congressman George Miller along with Congressman John Dingell of Michigan, the floor manager of the debate on the original Airborne Hunting Act; and Congressman Norm Dicks of Washington state, chair of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee.
Now before the Committee on Natural Resources, the bill, H.R. 3663, would close a loophole in federal law that Alaska officials have used to permit hunters to shoot wolves from aircraft.
"It's time to ground Alaska's illegal and inhumane air assault on wolves," said Miller. "The state of Alaska has been operating an airborne hunting program that not only ignores federal law but violates Alaskans' and other Americans' wishes. The PAW Act will help to protect our nation's wildlife from the unethical and unfair practice of airborne hunting."
The PAW Act provides that states can only conduct activities prohibited by the Airborne Hunting Act to respond to legitimate biological and other emergencies, not just to authorize otherwise-illegal hunting practices.
The bill does not alter existing exceptions for the use of aircraft for animal control where land, livestock, water, pets, crops, or human health and safety are at risk.
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.