Lawmaker seeks to ban all wolf hunting from aircraft

Atka, an Arctic wolf.
Atka, an Arctic wolf. Chuck Kennedy / MCT

WASHINGTON — Alaska hasn’t done its part to observe a 35-year-old federal ban on hunting wolves from aircraft, said a California lawmaker who has filed legislation that will end the practice.

With an Arctic grey wolf named Atka at his side, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., introduced a bill Tuesday that bans wolf hunting from planes or helicopter. The legislation will close a loophole in the 1972 Airborne Hunting Act that has allowed the state of Alaska to issue permits to shoot and kill nearly 700 wolves from airplanes over the past four years, Miller said.

“Alaska’s wolves are once again being unlawfully hunted from the air,” Miller said at a press conference on the terrace of the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill. “The time has come to ground Alaska’s illegal air war against these animals.”

Rep. Don Young, who has often been at odds with Miller over the California congressman’s involvement in Alaska issues, immediately fired back. Hunting is a state issue that Congress shouldn’t be involved with, Young said in a statement.

“This bill is another deliberate attempt by radicals to federalize our country and defy the core principles upon which it was founded,” Young said. “States have the inherent right to manage their own wildlife populations. For the federal government to step in to one particular state is on par with a selective dictatorship, and as a population, we should be fearful that those in power are actively working to make this a reality.”

The effort to ban aerial hunts is being led by Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington-based wildlife conservation organization.

Alaskans have twice voted to ban such hunting, but the Legislature has overturned those bans on both occasions. The issue will go to voters again next year.

State wildlife managers say they don’t see the aerial shooting as hunting — and in fact they call it “predator control.”

Alaska’s Board of Game began its aerial predator-control effort five years ago after complaints surfaced that a sizable and healthy wolf population was preventing moose populations from recovering.

“They’re beautiful to watch,” said Cliff Judkins, chairman of the state Game Board. “They’re beautiful to listen to, when you’re out there at a campsite. The wolf is a very valuable part of the ecosystem and they need to stay. But we just don’t need the numbers.”

Reports in March that aerial gunners weren't killing many wolves prompted the game board to ask Gov. Sarah Palin to let state biologists shoot wolves from helicopters. To speed up the killing, the Department of Fish and Game offered a $150 bounty for the left front leg of every dead wolf. Predator-control opponents sued, and a state Superior Court judge ordered the bounty to a halt before a single payment had been made. Helicopters were never used because they are too expensive.

“It’s to bad that we call the 'antis' have come out with this campaign that we want to slaughter all the wolves in Alaska,” Judkins said. “That’s just not the case at all. One of the only effective ways to kill wolves is from aircraft.”

But Defenders of Wildlife had a secret weapon in the public relations battle over aerial hunting: Atka, a 5-year-old Arctic grey wolf who drew a crowd of curious House staffers and onlookers and more cameras than usual for a press conference announcing new legislation.

Atka, who is more of a wintery white than grey, serves as the best possible ambassador for the conservation cause, said Spencer Wilhelm, the operations manager at the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, N.Y.

“We want to show our support to stop this hunting,” Wilhelm said. “We want to teach people about wolves and what the human role is in their future.”

For a predator, Atka leads a privileged life. He’s fed about 15 pounds of food every three days or so — usually venison, sometimes caribou, and occasionally trout. And in fact, Miller’s press aides warned when they sent out an announcement about Atka’s appearance that “no food is allowed on the terrace when the wolf is present.”

Atka’s normal habitat would be above the Arctic Circle, but he lives in his own one-acre outdoor enclosure on the wolf refuge. Atka, who was raised by a breeder in Minnesota, is not domesticated, but he is comfortable and familiar with humans, and can be led on a leash.

Tuesday, Atka’s confident lope faltered when he saw the reporters and photographers gathered for the press conference — the handsome wolf knew a pack when he saw one and his trail retreated between his legs. That means he’s uncomfortable with a situation, Wilhelm said. But as a creature familiar with pack etiquette, Atka found his place in it: right at the center of attention. The golden-eyed wolf plopped down on the ground during the press conference, chewing on a water bottle until his 42 sharp teeth tore through it and he was able to lap up the water.

As the event drew to a close, Atka retreated backward when his handlers wanted him to descend the stairs to the street. He seemed spooked by a noisy metal security barrier, which kept clanging down to the pavement so cars could drive through toward the Capitol.

Uncomfortable with the growing crowd, and with his tail between his legs again, Atka led his handler toward the cool comfort of the shaded marble steps leading into the Cannon building.

“Another special interest, trying to get into Congress,” quipped one House aide with a video camera.