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.