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Open Season on Alaska’s Wolves
A controversial plan divides the state's hunting community.

Gray wolf
J & K Hollingsworth/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.
—Aldo Leopold, "Thinking Like a Mountain” (from A Sand County Almanac)


Sportsmen might agree that Alaska is already a hunter’s paradise—that is, until it comes to managing prized game species and the predators that compete for them. Indeed, Alaska’s controversial predator control program, currently focused squarely on the wolf, continues to divide Alaskans— hunters and nonhunters alike.

Under the program, private, permitted aerial gunners cull wolf populations in specific areas as a means to bolster declining moose and caribou herds. In an attempt to meet program goals in five parts of the state, Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game announced this past March that it would issue additional permits, and that it was starting an “incentive program”—offering $150 for each left foreleg turned in by permit holders—which many critics called a bounty.

A week and a half after the state’s announcement, however, a Superior Court judge placed a temporary restraining order on the incentive program in response to a motion filed by Defenders of Wildlife, the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, and the Alaska chapter of the Sierra Club that cited a 1984 law making bounties illegal.

“We’re real pleased,” says Defenders of Wildlife representative Tom Banks. “Unless the state can mount a strong enough argument, it should stay in place to the end of the season.”

Banks calls the latest court battle “just one small skirmish in a long conflict.” Opponents have consistently challenged the current wolf control program since it began in 2003, using lawsuits and petitions aimed at banning aerial shooting and “land-and-shoot” wolf hunting (which uses planes to track wolves). Twice defeated in statewide votes, aerial shooting was recently added as a 2008 ballot measure.

In the past, predator control was used to address biological emergencies, defined as “irreversible declines” in prey populations. Now the Board of Game considers enacting wolf control if moose, caribou, or deer populations are jeopardized or fall below “human harvest” objectives—the desired number of moose and caribou available for hunters. 

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game contends that predator control is used only after careful consideration. “It’s not about disliking predators,” says Matt Robus, director of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Division of Wildlife Conservation. “It’s about managing game.” Predator control is “not a hunt,” he emphasizes. “If it was a hunt, it would be against state and federal law.”

Prey and predator levels are monitored as closely as possible with the resources available, according to Robus. Even so, he recalls situations in which the state’s wildlife management agencies disagreed about appropriate ungulate numbers. 

Critics like Dave Lyon, a former big-game hunting guide and current co-chair of the conservation-oriented organization Alaska Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, argue that, at least in some areas, the Board of Game is trying to maintain moose and caribou at unnecessarily high densities. They worry that attempts to maximize huntable moose and caribou could lead to habitat damage and ungulate population crashes.

For Lyon and others, ample predators and prey are vital to wild Alaska. “If I were to go moose hunting and not have the opportunity to hear a wolf howl at night, that would be an empty experience,” he says.—Andrea Anderson

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