A new ad from Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund shows the pursuit and shooting of a wolf from a small plane and tells viewers that Sarah Palin "actively promotes" such killings. It's true that she does, and in 2007 she offered $150 payments for anyone who brought the left forepaw of a wolf to state officials. The ad calls the practice "brutal and unethical" but doesn't tell the whole story.
- Alaskan officials call it "predator control," not aerial hunting, and use it to keep the populations of moose and caribou high for subsistence hunters.
- The program is limited to just 9 percent of the state's land mass, or five of 26 Department of Fish and Game districts.
- Far from being endangered, as they are in the Lower 48 states, gray wolves number between 7,000 and 11,000 in Alaska
This TV spot isn't for the squeamish, especially not squeamish animal-lovers. Its visuals include sinister-looking photos of Gov. Sarah Palin juxtaposed with footage of a wolf trying to outrun an airplane, then being shot and writhing in pain. Finally we see a small plane taking off, a wolf carcass tied to one of its wing struts.
There's a lot of emotional huffing and puffing in the ad. It says "Sarah Palin actively promotes the brutal and unethical aerial hunting of wolves and other wildlife" and says she encourages "cruelty" and "champions … savagery." But strip away the emotional characterization and we're left with a description of Palin's position that is essentially factually correct, though incomplete.
Here are the bare facts: As a gubernatorial candidate, and since she was elected in 2006, Palin has promoted aerial wolf and bear shooting, which is usually done with a two-seat, fixed-wing Piper Super Cub in winter, when the animals can be tracked more easily. In March 2007, Palin's administration announced that it would offer $150 for the foreleg of each freshly killed wolf, in order to encourage hunters. A lawsuit by Defenders of Wildlife and the Alaska Wildlife Alliance prompted a judge to issue a temporary restraining order to stop the payments, and the state backed off.
Palin also proposed legislation in 2007 that would have allowed aerial shooting, under a "predator control" program, of wolverines as well as brown bears and wolves, and would have eased some of the requirements the state had to meet before approving airborne predator control in a given sector. The bill passed the House but died in Senate committee last spring; Palin has vowed to reintroduce it. So the ad is accurate on that score, as well.
Let Us Prey
If you think the explanation above implies a more complicated landscape than the ad shows us, you're correct. In the first place, while gray wolves are listed as an endangered species in the Lower 48, and great efforts have been made to reintroduce them in some Western states, they are abundant in Alaska. Ron Clarke, assistant director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, says the state is home to between 7,000 and 11,000 of them. Wolf populations in Alaska have bounced back since the 1950s, when federal agents conducted an extensive poisoning and aerial shooting campaign; moose and caribou proliferated as a result, in some cases leading to severe degradation of their own habitats.
Second, it's not for nothing that wolves have acquired their big, bad reputations. Studies indicate that predators (wolves and bears) often take 70 percent to 80 percent of the moose and caribou that die each year in Alaska. Research by the state Department of Fish and Game shows that "a single wolf eats 12-13 moose in a typical year and/or 30-40 caribou, mostly calves." (Whether it's "and" or "or" would seem important, but we'll let that one slide for now.)
Third, the state doesn't refer to the practice as aerial hunting; to Alaska officials, it's "predator control," as you may have noted above. The federal Airborne Hunting Act, passed in 1971 in response to a national outcry against aerial hunting in Alaska, prohibits shooting at or harassing any bird, fish, or other animal from aircraft. Exceptions are allowed if the federal government or a state finds aerial hunting is needed to protect "land, water, wildlife, livestock, domesticated animals, human life, or crops." In those cases, programs must be developed, individuals must obtain government permits to do the hunting, and state officials must report facts and figures to the feds on a regular basis.
That's the situation in Alaska. If you're just some guy or gal with a small plane, a rifle, a hunting license and a six-pack, you can't take off and go hunting for wolves anywhere you happen to be. Predator control programs have been authorized by the state in five of its 26 game management units, which account for 9.4 percent of the state's land mass. Pilot-and-gunner teams have to apply for permits, and they must provide their own planes.
The program exists in large part because the state's intensive game management law puts a premium on efforts to "restore the abundance or productivity of identified big game prey populations as necessary to achieve human consumptive use goals." The "big game prey" in question are the approximately 1 million caribou and 175,000 to 200,000 moose in the state. Subsistence hunters are a major priority in wildlife management in Alaska, although a subsistence hunter is hard to define. Clarke offered some statistics: About 20 percent of Alaska's population, or roughly 135,000 people, is classified as rural. About 92 percent to 100 percent of rural Alaskans use wild fish for food to some extent, and 79 percent to 92 percent use wildlife. Palin, herself a hunter, might live in too urban an area to be included in these statistics, but she has said she eats moose and other game.
State law is so favorable to hunters that it requires the state to have a hunting season before school starts in fall "[f]or the purpose of encouraging adults to take children hunting."
The tension in the state between those who object to aerial shooting of wolves on moral grounds (the concept of "fair chase" doesn't exist in predator control) and those who want to limit these predators so hunters will have plentiful targets, has given rise to frequent changes in the law. After the Airborne Hunting Act was passed at the federal level, Alaskans initiated a permit program that allowed aerial hunting for predator control, and some became fans of practices like "land and shoot," meaning they could use their planes to chase down the animals, land their aircraft and then shoot them.
But the burgeoning environmental and animal welfare movements, the 1980 signing by President Jimmy Carter of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, several high-profile cases of hunters violating aerial hunting regulations and other factors put pressure on state government. A tourism boycott was in the works, and lawsuits were filed against the state.
The Alaska Board of Game's adoption in 1992 of an extensive wolf-control program in several areas, with the goal of reducing wolf populations there by 80 percent, went over poorly with many in the state and the rest of the nation. Aerial hunts were canceled, then reinstated, then canceled again in 1995. Voters approved a 1996 ballot initiative that essentially banned predator control by airplane, resulting in the state's same day airborne hunting law. But the Legislature, in 1999 and 2000, rewrote the law, reversing what the referendum had done. Later in 2000, though, another ballot measure passed, restricting airborne wolf control to Department of Fish and Game personnel only.
The volley ended, at least for now, in 2003, when the Legislature reinstated airborne wolf control by private pilots and gunners, which is the program that exists today. (Alaskans voted on yet another ballot initiative to restrict the aerial hunting program to state government personnel last month. This time it failed.) Under current law, the Fish and Game Department may start a predator control program only if it finds that populations of big game have fallen below predetermined desired numbers, that "predation is an important cause" of the decline and that elimination of predators can be expected to lead to more big game. Nearly 800 wolves have been killed over the last five years through aerial hunting in order to increase the numbers of moose and caribou. The goal in some areas is to cut the wolf population by 80 percent.
The practice of killing some animals to artificially manipulate the populations of others, of course, remains controversial. Some groups, such as Defenders of Wildlife, accuse the state of exploiting a loophole in the law. Other recent objections have come from scientists. The American Society of Mammalogists has sent several letters of concern and in 2006 passed a resolution questioning the scientific basis of the program. In 2007, 172 scientists wrote to Palin also questioning whether the program was grounded in solid research, including accurate surveys of animal populations, and whether unrealistically high target numbers of prey had been adopted. The scientists urged that the conservation of predators be considered on an equal basis with the goal of producing more moose and caribou for hunters.
That would likely require a change in Alaska law. But Clarke insists there's no danger of a significant decline in the wolf population in Alaska. "We want wolves," he said. "We want healthy, sustainable populations."
Is the aerial hunting – or predator control – that takes place in Alaska brutal, cruel, unethical savagery, as the ad says? That's a personal judgment call we'll have to leave to our readers. Alaskans themselves remain deeply divided on the issue. "We have knock-down, drag-out debates even within the [Fish and Game] department on these things," said Clarke.
Update, Sept. 26: Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund has sent us a letter defending their ad and laying out their arguments against Alaska's "predator control" program in detail. As a courtesy to DOW and as a service to our readers we have posted their letter in full as a supporting document.
–by Viveca Novak
Correction, Sept. 25: In the original version of our story we misidentified the part of the plane to which the wolf carcass is tied in the ad. It's a wing strut, not a runner.
Clarification, Sept. 25: The federal Fish and Wildlife Service de-listed gray wolves as endangered species in the Lower 48 earlier this year, saying the species had fully recovered in the Northern Rockies. However, on Sept. 22, the agency asked a court to vacate the de-listing.
deMarban , Alex. “State puts a bounty on wolves.” Anchorage Daily News, 21 Mar. 2007.
Alaska State Legislature. HB 256, 11 March 2007.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Gray Wolf (Canius Iupus),” accessed 24 Sept. 2008.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game-Division of Wildlife Conservation. Overview of Relationships Between Bears, Wolves, and Moose in Alaska, accessed 24 Sept. 2008.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game-Division of Wildlife Conservation. Predator Management in Alaska. November 2007.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Airborne Hunting Act. 30 April 2004.
American Society of Mammalogists. Scientists Refute Alaska's Board of Game Airborne Wolf Slaughter. 24 Oct. 2006.
American Society of Mammalogists. Annual Reports of Standing Committees, Affiliates and Ombudspersons.
State of Alaska. Sec. 16.05.783. "Same day airborne hunting."
State of Alaska. Sec. 16.05.255. "Regulations of the Board of Game; management requirements."
Interview with Ron Clarke, assistant director, Division of Wildlife Conservation, Alaska Deaprtment of Fish and Game. 18 Sept. 2008.
Interview with Kevin Saxby, senior assistant attorney general, Natural Resources Section, Civil Division, Alaska Department of Law. 18 and 24 Sept. 2008.
Braiker, Brian, "On the Hunt." Newsweek.com, 29 Aug. 2008, Web site accessed 24 Sept. 2008.