US Fish and Wildlife Service/AP

Alaska Aims to Kill 328 Wolves in Aerial Hunt

March 20, 2009 03:40 PM
by Rachel Balik
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game plans to kill 328 wolves to protect the state’s caribou population, using the controversial practice of aerial hunting.

Alaska Experiments With Eliminating Predators

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game says that after the state’s caribou population has struggled through a rough winter—dropping to a mere 40,000 animals—the solution is to reduce the wolf population, which preys on the beasts. Aerial raids began last weekend, and the state intends to kill a total of 328 wolves. The state wishes to increase the caribou population so those animals can be hunted as well, which has environmentalists concerned about overall animal well-being.

Although it is legal to kill wolves if they are seen as a threat to another animal population, the exact number of wolves in the state is difficult to determine, and the population may not be sufficiently thriving to merit the aerial hunts. But the Department of Fish and Wildlife believes the initiative is necessary, and will carefully monitor the population by placing radio collars on certain wolves, the LA Times reported.

In July 2008, Alaskan biologists drew attention for killing 14 wolf pups, also as part of an effort to support the caribou population. Biologists were killing adult wolves in a population control initiative when they found the pups. Killing pups was once a common method of population management, but is now illegal. In this situation, biologist Lem Butler told the Fairbanks Daily News Miner that the choice was kill the pups in a humane way, or let them starve to death without parents.

Background: History of aerial wolf hunts

In 1972, Congress passed an official ban on aerial hunting. However, the ban includes exemptions for “protection of wildlife, livestock, and human life as authorized by a Federal or State issued license or permit.” Alaska can now hunt wolves based on the need to aid the caribou population.

But in 1996, a ballot measure to protect wolves was successful, and citizens voted to ban the aerial hunting of wolves.  The Defenders of Wildlife organization called it a great victory for wolves “in one of the most longstanding wildlife controversies ever.” In 1993, aerial hunts were still legal. Thousands of wolves were being killed in Alaska, which was at the time the only state that did not list wolves as an endangered species.

Then in 2000, Bill SB 267, put forth by Alaska state Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, passed in the state legislature, even after the current governor vetoed it. Aerial hunts became legal in the state for everyone who paid the $15 trapping license, CNN reported. At the time, even members of the Fish and Wildlife service were concerned about reinstating hunting, because the exact number of wolves in the state could not be determined. If the number was less than estimated, hunting could be dangerous to the wolf population. 

Since then, Alaskans have made repeated efforts to get the ban reinstated, reports The Democratic Underground, drawing on sources from one Democratic blogger. But in 2006, Alaska governor Sarah Palin put a bounty on wolves and began an initiative to educate the public on predator control.

Related Topic: Wolves no longer listed as endangered

The gray wolf was delisted from the Endangered Species List in March 2008, but in September 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service changed its mind, concerned over the rapidly dropping number of wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. The delisting was temporarily suspended in the hope that laws monitoring hunting could be put in place.

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