The morning of Friday, Feb. 21, dawned bright and clear in the rolling boreal forest of Alaska's eastern interior. The temperature was 8 below zero – perfect for flying. Yet Troy Cambier, a 46-year-old army veteran and one of the state's best bush pilots, was reluctant to take the controls of his yellow Robinson R44 helicopter. Word had gotten out that the Lost Creek wolf pack was stalking the Fortymile caribou herd beyond the protective borders of Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, and a state biologist wanted Cambier to fly an aerial gunner in to eliminate the pack.
While Cambier is not necessarily opposed to bolstering Alaska's moose and caribou populations through predator control, he prefers non-lethal assignments. A few years earlier, he'd flown National Park Service biologists out to radio-collar two members of the same pack he was now being asked to help kill. But the pilot who usually flies predator control was away, and Cambier knew that if he refused the job, it would likely fall to someone less capable of getting close enough for a clean shot. "I'd heard of situations before where they'd used (an inexperienced pilot), and it was pretty brutal," he says. "It was hard on the critters."
So as the winter sun rose, Cambier found himself racing low over the contours of 5,000-foot mountains, his helicopter doors thrown open. He won't talk about what happened next. "I don't think anybody enjoys that stuff," he says. By the time he touched back down in Fairbanks, though, all 11 wolves in the pack – including those with collars – were dead.
The animals were the latest casualty in a long-simmering dispute between state and federal officials. At issue is the management of predators in and around Alaska's national preserves and wildlife refuges, where state and federal agencies share management responsibilities. Lately, the lines of authority have grown blurry, and agencies' goals are increasingly at odds. State biologists are bound by a 1994 law requiring them to manage for abundant moose, caribou and deer for food security, while their federal counterparts say that the 1916 Organic Act tasks them with maintaining healthy populations of all animals – not just those people eat.
Nowhere is the divide so stark as in Yukon-Charley. Last year, the Park Service spent about $100,000 studying wolves in the region. The state spent roughly the same amount to kill them. And pilots like Troy Cambier were caught in the middle.
Before the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act parceled the state's vast wilderness into parks and preserves, many Alaskans feared the loss of traditional hunting and subsistence opportunities. So to ensure that those rights were protected along with the land and animals, the law granted wildlife authority on 98 million acres of federal lands to both state and federal agencies. For decades, the arrangement worked smoothly: The state spared wolves and other predators that were part of federal studies, while the Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife accepted most decisions made by the Alaska Board of Game, which sets hunting, fishing and trapping regulations and passes them on to Alaska's Department of Fish and Game for implementation.
"Until five or 10 years ago, state hunting regulations and the Park Service aligned quite well," explains John Quinley, the agency's Alaska spokesman. It likely helped that during Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles' tenure in the '90s, aerial wolf culls were supplanted by non-lethal – but expensive – measures like relocation and sterilization.
Not everyone was pleased. "Subsistence opportunities were in shambles," says Board of Game Chairman Ted Spraker. On the Southern Alaska Peninsula, for example, caribou numbers had fallen from 10,000 in the '80s to about 2,000 by the end of Knowles' second term. So when Republican Frank Murkowski became governor in 2002, he replaced five of the seven members of the Board of Game with citizens who favored a more lethal approach. Among them was Spraker, a stern but grandfatherly biologist just retired from nearly 30 years with Alaska Fish and Game.
Under Spraker's watch, the board began a campaign to reduce predation and ease hunting regulations on both state and federal land. "The governor didn't tell us how to vote," he says wryly, "but we had encouragement."
That encouragement continued under subsequent Republican governors Sarah Palin and Sean Parnell. By 2008, caribou on the Southern Alaska Peninsula had dropped to less than 600, and the board allowed state biologists to shoot 28 wolves from helicopters. Calf survival rates jumped from 1 to 40 percent, and the herd's numbers have since grown substantially.
Next, the board legalized using artificial lights to rouse hibernating black bears from their dens so that hunters could shoot them as they emerged. Native elders in interior Alaska had asked for the right to use the practice ritually, as their ancestors had before firearms made it easier to challenge bears in the open. But because state law forbids discriminating between hunters, the board opened the practice to everyone – and tried to extend it into parts of Gates of the Arctic and Denali national preserves.
Finding bear dens in unknown territory is expensive and difficult, and it's unlikely that a white guy from Anchorage is going to kill denning ursines in interior Alaska. Still, the move angered environmental groups. Alaska has the right to do what it will on 105 million acres of state land, says National Parks Conservation Association program manager Joan Frankevich, but "I don't understand why they think they have the ability to override federal laws. National preserves were set up to preserve the natural balance of predators and prey."
Adding to the tension is a disagreement over how to define subsistence hunting in the 21st century. The Federal Subsistence Board bases its definition solely on where a hunter lives – so-called "rural priority" – while the state allows any resident, regardless of home address, to become a recognized subsistence hunter if they can prove a long-standing dependence on the land. Thus, the feds acknowledge 124,000 subsistence hunters, while Alaska counts a possible 732,000.
Alaskan officials say their method helps families survive in a state where milk can cost $10 a gallon and gas even more. Plus, Spraker says, predator control is limited to the 10 or 12 percent of the state where human demand is highest, often around the state's limited road system. "People think I don't like wolves," he adds. "That's absolutely not true." But if Alaska goes all out on predator-control now, programs can be scaled back or eliminated once ungulate populations reach desired levels.
So in 2010, the board eliminated a 122-square-mile buffer abutting Denali National Park that protected wolves crossing its boundaries from hunting and trapping. Two years later, one of Denali's alpha females was caught in a trap; wolf populations are now the lowest in decades. In other locations, the board has authorized baiting brown bears, illegal since statehood, extended wolf seasons to months when adults have pups in tow, and increased bag limits from five per season up to 20 per season or 10 per day.
Those actions are completely incompatible with Park Service objectives, says Yukon-Charley Chief of Resources Jeff Rasic. "We're at loggerheads. We get painted as these romantic animal lovers, and that misses the point."
Since 2001, the Park Service has asked the Board of Game roughly 60 times to exclude certain practices from national preserves. Each time, the board has said no: Alaska's 2014 hunting regulations are once again largely the same for national preserves as for state land. And so once again, the Park Service will override state rules allowing longer seasons, increased bag limits and controversial hunting methods on the lands it manages.
State Fish and Game officials like director of wildlife conservation Doug Vincent-Lang see this as federal overreach, and in response are flexing the state's muscle in places like Yukon-Charley. Last year, biologists gunned down 36 of the preserve's resident wolves – more than half the population – when they wandered outside park borders. As for the Lost Creek wolves, which had been part of a decades-long federal study, "I've always been kind of surprised that a supervisor would allow his research staff to collar wolves adjacent to an area that has predator control," muses Spraker. "If you're going to study wolves, you've got an entire park. Study them on the other side."
Federal officials, for their part, aren't saying that it's inappropriate to reduce predator numbers, but question whether the state is going too far in certain places. While the Fortymile caribou herd's numbers are indeed below some historic estimates, the state's own biologists published a paper in 2012 that found signs of nutritional stress among the animals. "To increase the (caribou) population might not be a smart move based on ecological carrying capacity," notes John Burch, a federal wolf biologist and former wolf trapper who studied the Lost Creek wolves for 18 years. If Alaska continues to call for culls of 60 to 80 percent of Fortymile's wolf population, he says, the caribou could eat themselves out of house and home.
This is the slippery political terrain that Cambier and other pilots find themselves navigating. Cambier came to Alaska because he loves to fly, loves to explore the kind of wilderness that most people only dream of – and because he has a passion for wildlife. "I (always) knew I was going to be flying," he says. "But I'm in it for the animals. If it was for mining stuff, I wouldn't do it."
So after Cambier returned to Fairbanks on Feb. 21, he took a deep breath and called Burch. "I'm sorry," he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the Lost Creek wolves were part of a decades-long state study, when in fact that was a federal study.