Alaska Wolf Plan Stirs Controversy

State program to kill wolves by air to protect game herds pits values of hunters against those of state's new professionals

OUTSIDE a sports arena here, Joe Vogler was rallying his faithful, saying the "wolf summit" going on inside was yet more proof that Alaska should sever its ties with the United States and become an independent nation.

"Unless you live in Alaska, you have absolutely no right to make any input into our fish and game rules," said the octogenarian Mr. Vogler, standing in the parking lot with other pro-hunting demonstrators last month.

Nearby was Rob Mulford, who carried a sign reading: "Secede - Liberate Alaska" and "Right on Joe Vogler; Posy Sniffer, Get a Life." Mr. Mulford said, "These forces behind this `Don't kill a wolf,' `Love Mother Earth' ... stuff are basically antihuman, earth-worshipping neopagans."

Their partisans sparred verbally with counterprotesters carrying signs with such slogans as: "I will share with Brother Wolf," and wearing buttons lampooning the philosophy of Alaska's pro-development governor, Walter Hickel (Ind.), as "Kill it! Fill It! Drill It! Spill It!"

At issue was the state plan to dispatch state employees and private hunters by aircraft to shoot 300 to 400 gray wolves a year to boost sportsmen's opportunities to bag caribou and moose. The plan would greatly expand the legality of trapping wolves.

Proponents say areas are in a "predator pit," unable to boost populations by natural means because wolf packs keep picking off the young and weak. Opponents say the plan, put forth by the Alaska Board of Game in November, amounts to manipulation of wildlife for the benefit of hunters.

The issue came to a head last week when Governor Hickel prepared to declare a state-of-emergency wolf kill. But Hickel had to back off the plan when biological data from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game showed there is no justification for one.

This is the latest round in a lengthy battle over the controversial plan. The component of tracking the animals by radio collar to strafe them from the air was greeted with horror and a brief Alaska tourism boycott. Some 20,000 letters of protest poured into Hickel's office, and Alaska-based environmental groups like the Audubon Society said the wolf issue produced more national reaction than any event since the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Eventually, the Board of Game bowed to public pressure, scrapping its entire wolf plan until June, when the issue of managing Alaska's estimated 5,900 to 7,200 gray wolves will be revisited.

Washington also may become involved. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D) of Oregon is sponsoring a bill that would give the US Interior Department veto power over any animal predator-control program.

But board members and political appointees at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game continued to defend aerial hunting and other wolf-control measures.

THEY said increased trapping and a revival of wolf-poisoning, a method used in the 1950s, may be on the horizon. In apparent retaliation against conservationists, the hunter-dominated board scrapped wolf-protection buffers around three national parks, including a 10-mile zone bordering Denali National Park. Buffers are regions where no wolf-hunting or -trapping is permitted.

"To make a decision based on blackmail is not the way this board likes to work," board chairman Dick Burley, a sport-hunting advocate from Fairbanks, said before the group's vote.

Obviously, this is a debate over more than biology.

* It pits the new Alaska - image-conscious professionals seeking their place in the emerging Pacific Rim economy - against the old Alaska, people nostalgic for the frontier-taming days who hold the motto: "We don't care how they do it outside."

* It pits environmentalists against Alaska hunters who view the wilderness less romantically.

* It pits Alaskan orneriness against economic interests.

The tourism boycott called in November and lifted a month later came during the peak pre-1993 travel-booking period and cut anticipated 1993 in-state tourism spending by 13 percent, trade-group officials said. Had it continued, the boycott would have caused a loss of up to $150 million in tourism, the No. 3 private employer.

For Hickel, who called the January summit, the wolf issue proved a political minefield. He won in 1990 with 38 percent of the vote, running on the ticket of Vogler's fringe party and with arch-conservative sport-hunters as a core constituency.

But Alaskans oppose aerial wolf-hunting and the Board of Game's plan. Opposition ranges from 2 to 1 to 4 to 1, according to late 1992 statewide polls.

"The majority of Americans - and that includes Alaskans ... - are repulsed by the methodology that's being proposed for controlling of wolves," said Bob Dittrick, owner of a bird-watching tour company and a board member of the Alaska Wilderness Recreation and Tourism Association. "It's just socially unacceptable to be flying around in helicopters and airplanes shooting wolves."

Some hunters who acknowledge their minority status say their interests should rule because they bankroll the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Fees for sport-hunting and fishing, and taxes contribute some $40 million to the department's $95 million annual budget, said Fish and Game Commissioner Carl Rosier. Fishermen and hunters carry a similar financial load in other states.

Environmentalists have proposed a wildlife-watching fee system of their own for Alaska and elsewhere. But they also want state managers to adopt a new philosophy, perhaps changing their agency's name to the "Department of Fish and Wildlife."

The wolf drama is being repeated across the border in the Canadian Yukon Territory, where government officials began shooting animals this month to boost game numbers, despite protests of the World Wildlife Fund and other groups.

Unlike the Alaska plan, which divided natives, the Yukon plan has the support of its natives. That may be because the Yukon guarantees special hunting and fishing rights to aboriginal residents in its Constitution.

Although there have been murmurings of a Yukon tourism boycott, none have been strong enough to upset officials' plans to cull some 150 wolves to boost game herds in an area they admit has been overhunted.

But a more-focused tourism boycott may be in the works. "I think there is a strong possibility that the Yukon will be targeted for boycott," said Wayne Pacelle, national director of the Washington-based Fund for Animals. "Aerial wolf-gunning should be relegated to the history books."

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