In 1959, when Alaska became a state, predators -- especially wolves -- weren't considered that big of a problem. Wolves had already been trapped, shot and poisoned into submission by federal wildlife agents. The state Constitution included Article VIII, which called for resources such as wildlife to be "utilized, developed, and maintained on the sustained yield principle, subject to preferences among beneficial users." The newly formed Alaska Department of Fish and Game designated wolves as furbearers, curtailed aerial killing and limited how many a person could kill in one season.
As wolves became more abundant, some moose, sheep and caribou populations began to decline. The Nelchina caribou herd -- which roams about 15,000 square miles between the Chugach Mountains and the Alaska Range -- plunged from 71,000 to 7,000 from 1960 to 1972. The moose population in Tanana Flats south of Fairbanks fell from 28,000 to 2,800 during the same period. Hunters blamed the wolves for the severe decline; it was certainly linked to predators, but other factors -- such as deep snow, unseasonably cold temperatures and overharvesting by hunters -- also played a role.
In Alaska's wildlife-management system, the governor appoints a Fish and Game commissioner as well as seven-member boards of fish and game. The two boards gather suggestions from the public, partly through more than 80 advisory committees around the state, and pass them on to the Fish and Game Department. The political pendulum is always swinging. Vic Van Ballenberghe, an Anchorage-based wildlife biologist who was appointed to the Board of Game by three governors, recalls that widespread, state-sanctioned wolf control began again (minus poisoning) under Republican Gov. Wally Hickel in 1968. (Hickel later warned, "You can't just let nature run wild.") The so-called "land-and-shoot" method, in which gunners use planes to locate wolves and then zero in on foot, was highly effective. It created artificially high moose and caribou populations, which in turn became the new baselines the state has tried to maintain ever since, says Van Ballenberghe, who used to work for the state and has written about 100 scientific articles on moose, wolves and caribou. "From that point forward, wolf control in Alaska has been dictated almost entirely by politics."
Congress imposed limits on aerial gunning with the 1971 Airborne Hunting Act and its 1972 amendments, but the law had loopholes allowing Alaska to keep doing it. In 1986, Democratic Gov. Steve Cowper, under pressure from the public, reined in wolf control while allowing hunters to continue to "land-and-shoot." In December of 1990, Hickel regained office and resumed wolf control in full force. In November 1992, for instance, Hickel's Board of Game approved a five-year aerial wolf control program in which 80 percent of the wolf population in a 20,000-square-mile area would be shot from helicopters to boost moose and caribou populations. Van Ballenberghe says both Hickel and his game commissioner, David Kelleyhouse, were radical predator-control proponents. "The commissioner's nickname was Machine Gun Kelleyhouse," he says, "because he requisitioned a fully automatic machine gun to kill wolves from a helicopter."
The demand for big game -- the meat and trophies -- comes from Alaska Natives and other rural subsistence hunters, as well as from hunters who live in cities and wealthy out-of-staters. In 1994, the Alaska Legislature passed the so-called Intensive Management Law, which "requires the Board of Game to identify moose and caribou populations that are especially important food sources for Alaskans" and provide "high levels of harvest for human consumptive use in accordance with the sustained yield principle." The same year, however, voters also elected Democrat Tony Knowles governor. Knowles came down on both sides of wolf control: He cut back some predator-control programs but took the concept to different extremes, with an effort to give wolves vasectomies. (Certified veterinarians performed vasectomies and tubal ligation on tranquilized males and females.)
Groups against aggressive predator control -- such as Defenders of Wildlife, Friends of Animals and the Alaska Wildlife Alliance -- have frequently sued the state government, charging that statistics and reasoning were flawed. They've won some cases and lost some. The public also weighed in through a series of ballot initiatives, which were met by further actions by the Legislature: In 1996, 58.5 percent of voters banned aerial gunning of wolves other than in "biological emergencies." In 1999, the Legislature overruled voters and reinstated the practice. In 2000, Gov. Knowles vetoed the Legislature's action, but the Legislature overrode his veto. Then, later that year, 53 percent of voters passed a ballot measure that prohibited private hunters from killing wolves from the air and "land-and-shoot" hunting; only government shooters would be allowed to do it. That only lasted until 2003, when a new governor, Republican Frank Murkowski, and the Legislature reinstated aerial wolf killing and "land-and-shoot" for a limited number of private hunters in certain areas.
The hunting industry's political power comes partly from the millions of dollars it generates each year. Commercial guides are required for any out-of-state hunters going after Dall sheep, mountain goats and brown bears, and they charge thousands of dollars per trip. The Alaska Professional Hunters Association lobbies all the way up to Washington, D.C., on behalf of the hunting guides, to ward off efforts in Congress to clamp down on Alaska's predator control. The Alaska Outdoor Council and Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife-Alaska fight for hunting rights and increased predator control. Formed in 1955, the AOC has 12,000 members and a "dedication to outdoor pursuits in Alaska -- hunting, fishing, trapping, and public access." The SFW-AK Facebook site lists 2,443 members along with its mission: to "assure maximum sustained yield for consumptive uses" of wildlife. Both of those groups offer special-permit hunts that can cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. And both are influenced by Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife-Utah founder Don Peay, an outspoken advocate of predator control who works with "elected officials at all levels from the community courthouse to the White House to improve and protect quality hunting and fishing on our great public lands and waters."
When Sarah Palin became governor, she appeared to give the hunting groups even more power. She appointed hunters and trappers to the Board of Game, some of them with direct ties to those hunting groups. That continues today: Current board member Teresa Albaugh was Alaska Outdoor Council president from 2005 to 2007, for instance, and member Nate Turner also serves on the Alaska Professional Hunters Association board.
In 2008, then-Gov. Palin led a well-orchestrated effort against a ballot measure called the Alaska Wolf and Bear Protection Act, which would have scaled back the aerial gunning once again. Her administration, using $400,000 approved by the Legislature, created a brochure touting the benefits of predator control and had it inserted in newspapers around the state a few weeks before the election; no doubt it helped persuade 55.6 percent of the voters to reject the measure. "The timing of the state's propaganda on wolf control was terrible," complained an Anchorage Daily News editorial.