Thursday, September 11, 2008 at 9:44 am
The wolf is an intelligent, handsome creature and, for many visitors to Alaska, an integral part of the state’s wild appeal. Wolves live in complex social structures, mate for life and don’t attack humans — it’s easy to see in them the family resemblance to mankind’s best friend.
That’s what makes it so painful to look at the video of an aerial wolfhunt in Alaska that has been circulating since Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was nominated as Sen. John McCain’s running mate on the Republican ticket.
In a program begun by ex-Gov. Frank Murkowski, and intensified by Palin, Alaska has sponsored the aerial hunting of more than 800 wolves since 2002 — out of a state population of perhaps 9,000. Pilots chase the wolves through the deep snow, sometimes for miles, until the exhausted animals have slowed enough to be blown away with shotguns. Then the plane lands and finishes the job, unless the wounded wolf has managed to crawl into the deep woods to bleed to death in solitude.
Palin, who won office with the support of powerful hunting groups, has intensified the “cull.” She pushed to offer a bounty to hunters who brought in a left wolf paw (lopped off with a chain saw) and extended the kill order to grizzly and black bears — including sows and their cubs. Before a state court ruled the practice illegal, she offered a bounty of $150 for every slain wolf.
Hunting groups support the program, arguing that it increases the availability of game for poor Alaskans, and the sporting chances of hunters like Sarah and Todd Palin themselves, who have their sights set on moose. But wildlife viewing brings far more tourist dollars to the state, where only 14 percent of the population hunts.
As John Toppenberg of the Alaskan Wildlife Alliance puts it, the 60,000 square miles where the cull takes place are mainly used by “fat-ass trophy hunters on all-terrain vehicles, not Native peoples who need them for subsistence, with rare exceptions.”
Critics say Palin has shown a strong bias for hunters. Her staff recently wrote a statute that would permit her hand-picked Board of Game, whose seven members all favor killing predators, to operate without written guidelines. Another bill, currently undergoing legal review, would prohibit Alaskans from putting pro-wildlife propositions on the ballot, by declaring wildlife a “state asset” whose fate can be determined only by the state .
To fight a ballot measure against the hunt, Palin’s government spent $400,000 to produce a report countering arguments that the hunt is inhumane and scientifically dubious. Meanwhile, 174 members of the American Society of Mammalogists wrote to Palin, unsuccessfully, to ask her to reevaluate the science.
In 1996 and 2000, Alaskans voted in favor of ballot initiatives to end the aerial hunt. This time, Lt. Governor Sean Parnell put the measure on the primary ballot, ensuring that Republicans — who were turning out in larger-then-usual numbers to vote on their scandal-ridden congressman and senator — would make up the bulk of the voters.
In the Aug. 26 primary, the measure to end aerial predator hunting failed winning only 44 percent of the vote. Parnell’s special assistant, Jason Hooley, said the state was obliged by new statutory language to put the measure on the primary ballot.
Many hunters oppose the aerial kills as cruel and unfair. Interestingly, the stomach-churning film that is circulating on YouTube (it was produced by Defenders of Wildlife), in fact depicts government hunters shooting wolves with tranquilizer darts, in order to study them. “The reality is much more gruesome,” says Toppenberg. “They get hit with buckshot, it goes right through and their blood splatters all over the snow.”
The hunts often take out alpha males, leaving younger animals that don’t know where to make dens or find ungulates at certain times of the year. “Then you have them going into rural villages and eating dogs,” Toppenberg said. “You’re creating wolf problems rather than solving them.”
The program was disturbing enough to have provoked Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) last year to introduce legislation designed to curtail predator-control programs, except as a last resort. Palin denounced the bill, applauding her own programs as “widely recognized for their excellence and effectiveness.”
But Steve Stringham, a wildlife biologist and author of six books about bears, says Alaska has never established what numbers of moose and caribou can be sustained by the environment. If they shoot too many wolves and bears, he noted, “the potential for overgrazing may be high.”
Stringham has lived closely with Alaskan wildlife. He spent the winter of 1972 in the Wrangell Mountains, 100 miles from the nearest grocer. Bagging a moose for eating was a matter of life and death. “In those situations you don’t have a great appreciation for wolves, until you bag your moose. Then you don’t mind the wolves so much.”
He has raised orphaned wolf pups, and had friendly wild wolves sit a few feet away from him. He’s also been out snowshoeing when packs of wolves surrounded him, a harrowing experience. “Part of you is saying to yourself, ‘There’s never been a reported case of wolves attacking and killing a human in North America.’ The other part of you is going, ‘Of course, this wouldn’t be a reported case either.’”
“But trophy hunters were a bigger problem. Before I got my moose I felt like shooting the damn trophy hunters out of the air. “
I reached wildlife biologist Vic Van Ballenberghe on his cellphone in vast Denali National Park, where he’s spent parts of the past 28 years observing moose. Van Ballenberghe is sickened by the atavistic hunting of predators from airplanes, but he’s also worried that willy-nilly wolf slaughter will hurt the moose and caribou.
When moose and caribou get too numerous and overbrowse, the plants don’t grow as well and the resulting food shortage can weaken the animals, leading to disease outbreaks. In the 1970s and ’80s, the slaughter of wolves in the Tanana Flats area, south of Fairbanks, led the moose population to explode from about 2,800 to the current level of 17,000. The moose in that area are sick, Van Ballenberghe said. “We’re waiting for a bad winter and that population will crash.”
The current predator-control program reminds Van Ballenberghe of the 1930s, when Alaskans shot, poisoned and ran down as many wolves and bears as they could. “Blasting wolves from an airplane is not something most people think is a good practice,” he says. “ You can call it anything you want but it’s a pretty ugly business.”
And there’s no convincing evidence that moose or caribou populations are particularly low in most of the area where the hunt is taking place. “Hunters always say there’s not enough game,” said Van Ballenberghe. “No matter how much there is, they always want more.”
In the recent campaign, hunting groups sent fliers to every voter in the state — warning that wolves would kill their dogs, threaten their kids and take food off the table. Some voters found the wording of the initiative confusing.
“We got more than a hundred calls from people who said they’d mistakenly voted the wrong way,” says Toppenberg. Hooley, Parnell’s spokesman, said the wording of the measure had been in place since 2005 and was well-reviewed by its proponents.
Palin’s dismal environmental record makes environmentalists cringe. She’s not convinced that global warming is man-made, sued to stop the listing of polar bears as an endangered species, and moved forward a mining plan that some believe threatens wildlife in Bristol Bay—her daughter’s namesake.
None of this seems to bug Alaskans overmuch. “We’ve got a lot of, ‘Kill them all, let God sort ‘em out’ mentality up here,” says Toppenberg, who was a cop in Colorado before moving to Alaska in the 1990s. “Hopefully, the lower 48 will become aware of the extremeness of Sara Palin’s positions. She’s for cut, kill and drill. Frankly, that’s not even good for tourism.”
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